Grace Bible Church
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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
January 1, 2006
The Conversion of Saul
Through the centuries there have been many stories of people who were dramatically converted from sinners to servants of the Savior, but none are as dramatic or has had as great an impact on the church as that of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus into Paul, the Apostle. This story is recorded for us in several places in Acts, and it magnifies the fact that it is God who intercedes in the life of individuals to call them to Himself. We will find that Saul was the least likely candidate to become a Christian.
Before we begin our study of Acts 9, I do want to stress that salvation is the work of God whether it is dramatic or not. As I was growing up I often heard stories of people who were dramatically converted from lives of great sin and debauchery to salvation and holiness. Since there was nothing outwardly dramatic about my own salvation it sometimes caused me to wonder about it and even wish I had such a dramatic story to tell myself. I certainly recognized my sinfulness and repented of it when I was saved, but there is not a lot of depth to the sin of a six year old. I would not want anyone here to think like I did growing up. All salvation stories are wonderful testimonies of God’s grace, but the best ones are actually those who come to Christ early in life and never go into the depths of sin. That is the testimony that Christian parents want for their children, and after studying Paul’s life, I know it is the one he wished he had for himself, nevertheless, he was truly grateful for God’s intervention to rescue him when He did.
Saul’s Intent (1-2)
We begin our study this morning by finding out Saul’s intent described in Acts 9:1,2, “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” To understand better why Saul was so intent on persecuting the followers of Jesus we need to know a little more about his background.
Saul was born in Tarsus, the large capital city of the province known as Cilicia. It was located about 10 miles inland from the coast on the Cydnus River in southeastern Turkey. It was an important center of trade, agriculture, education and business. It was also on the Roman Road that ran from the coastal plain up through the Cilician Gates in the Taurus Mountains and so it was in a strategic location to control access between the central and western parts of Asia Minor. Julius Caesar had granted the city all the privileges of Roman Citizens which is why Saul had Roman citizenship from birth (Acts 22:28).
Like his father before him, Saul was a Pharisee, and he had the best training available being educated in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, the most respected Rabbi of the time. In his own words he was educated “strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God” (Acts. 22:3). His own testimony in Phil. 3:4-6 of his life during this period was that if anyone could have had confidence in his flesh, it was him because he had been “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”
Saul may have been absent from Jerusalem during the years of Jesus’ ministry since there is no solid record of him meeting Jesus prior to the account here in Acts 9. He had returned to Jerusalem, and was possibly one of the Hellenistic Jews that had been debating with Stephen (and losing), for he was present and consenting when Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:58-8:1). He was also the one that was at the forefront of ravaging the church to the extent that the believers fled Jerusalem and scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:2-4)
With that in mind, we can now understand Saul’s attitude of “still breathing threats and murder.” The persecution of the disciples of the Lord had become his quest in life. He was fulfilling what Jesus had warned in John 16:2 that a time was coming when “everyone who kills you will think that he offers God service.” Since the disciples had fled Jerusalem, Saul’s zeal was compelling him to go to other areas to persecute them. For that reason he went to the High Priest to get letters granting him authority to pursue them, bind them, and bring them back to Jerusalem, both men and women. Though the Romans had their appointed governors over the various provinces, they also gave the local people a certain amount of self rule, and the Romans viewed the High Priest as the authority over Jewish matters both domestically and internationally, and the Synagogue leaders would certainly have recognized his authority in Jewish religious matters.
Note that Luke uses two different references for these early Christians. The first is “the disciples of the Lord.” “Disciple is the most common name used for Christians in Acts (29 times). A “disciple” is simply a learner or follower of a teacher. This name puts emphasis on the fact that those who are saved are also followers of Jesus Christ. The second reference is those “belonging to the Way.” (This is used 6 times in Acts. “Christian” is used twice, and “believers” once). This name is probably derived from the fact that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). It is only through faith in Jesus that you can know the “way to God” (Acts 18:26) or the “way of salvation” (Acts 16:17).
One particular place that Saul wanted to go to persecute the disciples was Damascus for it had a very large Jewish population, as is tragically attested by the fact that between 10,000 – 20,000 Jews were slaughtered there in 66 B.C.
With letters in hand Saul set off on the 150 mile journey to Damascus. The trip would have taken five or six days, and we can imagine Paul becoming even more upset as he found that those who had fled from him in Jerusalem had made even more disciples of the Lord throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria he was traveling through. But he was about to have an unexpected meeting with the Lord on that journey.
The Lord’s Intervention (3-9)
The Lord Reveals Himself (3-7)
“3 And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who art Thou, Lord?” And He [said,] “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do. ” 7 And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one.”
There are several things that must be noted. The first is that this was a completely unexpected event that Saul had not requested, prayed for, and we can safely assume, desired.
Second, it was a supernatural event. We learn from Paul’s account in Acts 26:13 that light that flashed from heaven was brighter than the midday sun and was shining all around him and his companions. This would be in keeping with the other times Jesus had revealed Himself in his glory such as on the Mt. of Transfiguration in Matthew 17 when Jesus’ “face shone like the Sun and His garments became as white as light.”
Third, note that while Saul heard and understood what was said, those with him only heard the voice, but they did not understand it nor did they see anyone. Also note that while they stood speechless, Saul had fallen to the ground.
Jesus’ question to Saul in verse 4 was self revealing. There was only one group that Saul was persecuting and here Jesus identifies Himself completely with His disciples. To persecute them is to persecute Him. Saul’s question back, “Who are you, Lord?” is a full recognition that this being that has revealed Himself in such a supernatural way is more than just a “sir,” but is the “Lord” Himself. It was a question of clarification, but probably asked with hesitation since it would be his worst fear to find out it that was actually Jesus and that he was guilty of fighting against God just as Gamaliel had warned the Sanhedrin in Acts 5. Jesus’ answer must have cut him to the core, but that answer also came with directions of what he was to do next.
The Effect on Saul (8,9)
The effect of this event on Saul was life changing and immediate. He would refer back to it in his future ministry as the point from which he changed from a persecutor of the disciples of Jesus into becoming a disciple of Jesus himself (Acts 22:6f; 26:12f). The effect was also immediate as verse 8 & 9 describe. “8 And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
We can only imagine all the things that were going through Saul’s mind as he picked himself up off of the ground and realized he was blind. Instead of boldly coming into Damascus as one who would triumph over the despised Christians, he was now lead by the hand. Fasting is usually associated with prayer, and Saul was certainly praying while he waited for the Lord’s next instructions.
The Ministry of Ananias (10-19a)
The Lord’s Call (10-12)
While Saul waited, the Lord was giving instructions to another believer. “10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Behold, [here am] I, Lord.” 11 And the Lord [said] to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.”
Ananias is introduced as simply “a certain disciple.” In Acts 22:12 Paul says that Ananias was “devout by the standard of the Law and well spoken of by the Jews” in Damascus, but he is not an apostle nor is there any indication that he was anything more than just a faithful disciple of Jesus. We are not told how the Lord communicated to Ananias, but His instructions are very precise. Ananias is to go to the street names Straight – which is still a major street in modern Damascus – and ask at the house of Judas for a certain man clearly identified as Saul of Tarsus. Ananias’ mission was to lay his hand on Saul so that he would regain his sight. The only other information given to him was that Saul was praying.
His Hesitancy (10-14)
Ananias’ reaction was the same that you or I would have had if we had been in his place. “13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Thy name.”
Undoubtably those who had fled Jerusalem not only spread the word about having faith in Jesus Christ, but also about Saul of Tarsus and his persecution of the disciples of Jesus. Ananias had heard all of this as well as the news of Saul’s mission in Damascus. Ananias did not know of what had happened to Saul on the trip to Damascus, so as far as he was concerned, Saul was still a grave threat. The fact that Saul was praying did not give Ananias any comfort, for the Pharisees were always praying in public. He would not have know that Saul’s prayers had changed into truly talking with God instead of religious show. The fact that Saul was blind may have been helpful, but the Lord wanted Ananias to restore Saul’s sight. Any of us would also have been hesitant.
The Lord’s Assurance (15-16)
The Lord gave Ananias the assurance he needed in verses 15-16. “15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” It was now clear to Ananias that Saul would not be a threat for either he already was or would also be a disciple of Jesus, for God had chosen him to bear Jesus’ name. The Lord even revealed to him the specifics about the particular ministry that Saul would have. Saul would be the instrument of choice, the tool that God would use to take the gospel to the gentiles as well as before kings and the Jews. In the process, Saul would suffer much for Jesus’ name. The persecutor would be one of the persecuted. God’s sovereignty is again manifested in revealing what would happen in the future before any human encountered the circumstances that would force the choices leading to the paths along which these prophecies would be fulfilled. That brought comfort to Ananias, and God’s sovereignty still brings comfort to His followers today.
Ananias’ Actions (17-19a)
Ananias is no longer hesitant. Verses 17-19 tell us “And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened.” In Acts 22:14-15 we find out that Ananias also said to Saul right after he had regained his sight, ‘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. 15 ‘For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 ‘And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’
Saul had been contemplating and praying for three days about the things he had done and who had confronted him on the road to Damascus, and once the Holy Spirit came upon him, Saul was a radically changed man who would become the Apostle, Paul. Saul immediately did do just as Ananias said. Even though he had not had anything to eat or drink, Saul’s first action after receiving back his sight was to be baptized.
It is important to note again that Ananias is not an apostle, nor is there indication that he was even a church leader, yet he is the one explains the gospel to Saul. He is the one that lays hands on Saul by which the Holy Spirit came upon him and he regained his sight, and he is probably also the one that baptized Saul. This is another important reminder that the ministry of the church belongs to the people of the church. The church has structure and is to have leaders that meet certain qualifications, but ministry is not reserved just to the leaders. It belongs to all the followers of Jesus. For Saul, this also meant that his appointment to be an apostle of Jesus Christ did not come through another apostle, but from the Lord Himself (Gal. 1:1). Other than the replacement of Judas with Matthias, there are no Biblical examples of the apostles choosing another apostle, much less an apostle granting his apostleship to a successor. The doctrine of Apostolic succession taught in some churches is without Biblical foundation.
We should also note here that the Holy Spirit comes upon Saul before he is baptized. As I explained when we studied Acts 2:38, salvation comes though the ministry of the Holy Spirit who regenerates the person who has repented, that is, who has turned from sin and self to the savior. The believer should then be baptized as soon as possible in public identification with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection as Paul explains in Romans 6. If you profess Jesus as your savior, then you need to obey His command to be baptized.
Saul Proclaims Jesus (19b-31)
In Damascus (19b-25)
Preaching (19b-22). The radical change in Saul is also immediately seen in his subsequent actions in verses 19-22. “Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he [began] to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and [who] had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this [Jesus] is the Christ.”
After several days with the disciples, in which we can safely assume that Saul was learning all that he could about being a disciple of Jesus, he begins preaching Jesus in the very synagogues in which he had been given authority to arrest Jesus’ followers. This was astonishing enough in itself to the Jews, but Saul was also increasing in his ability in proving that Jesus was the Christ and this left them even more confused.
You do not need to know a lot to tell others about Jesus. You just need to be faithful to tell them what you know. As you learn more, your abilities in proclaiming Jesus will increase. It is really just a question of faithfulness to share what you know while you continue to learn more. That was Saul’s example. Are you faithful to tell others what you know?
Escape (23-25). In verse 23 we encounter a time lapse. Luke writes, “After many days had elapsed.” Paul tells us in Galatians 1:17-18 that these many days included going away to Arabia and then returning to Damascus. After he had returned, verse 23, 24 tell us that “the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death.” But they were not the only ones after Saul, for his preaching of Jesus Christ had become an offense to those in Nabatean Arabia who ruled over Damascus at that time. In 2 Cor. 11:32.33 Paul writes that “the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and [so] escaped his hands.” Luke tells us in vs. 24 of the same incident writing that, his disciples took him by night, and let him down through [an opening in] the wall, lowering him in a large basket.”
Persecution had now come upon Saul, but the Lord protected him so that he could accomplish all of the rest of the things the Lord wanted him to do.
In Jerusalem (26-30)
Preaching (26-29a). In Galatians 1:18 we find out that the time period of Saul being away from Jerusalem is about 3 years, but having escaped the threat in Damascus, he now goes back. “26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic [Jews;].”
As can be easily understood, Saul was not readily accepted among the disciples in Jerusalem. They are afraid and do not believe his claim to also be a disciple. Most likely they thought it was a ploy to infiltrate them before arresting them all. It is not until Barnabas, the same man we met at the end of Acts 4, befriends Saul and introduces him to the Apostles that he is finally accepted after telling the story of his conversion and of his preaching in Damascus. Saul then begins the same ministry in Jerusalem. What must have gone through Saul’s mind when he takes up the same ministry of Stephen whom he had helped to murder so many years before. The reaction by these Hellenistic Jews was the same as it had been toward Stephen.
Escape (29b-30). “but they were attempting to put him to death. 30 But when the brethren learned [of it], they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.”
From Acts 22:17-21 we find out that the brethren probably learned of the attempts by the Hellenistic Jews to murder Saul from Saul himself, for he recounted in his defense given in that passage, 17 “And it came about when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, 18 and I saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’ 19 “And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in Thee. 20 ‘And when the blood of Thy witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the cloaks of those who were slaying him.’ 21 “And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'”
The other disciples, here called “the brethren” which shows the closeness of the fellowship they had with one another, take him down to the seaport of Caesarea, and from there Saul goes back to his hometown of Tarsus in Cilicia. In Galatians 1:21 Paul tells us that he “went into the regions of Syria and Cilica,” so he was not idle. A few years later Barnabas goes to Tarsus to find Saul so that he can help with the work going on among the Gentiles in Antioch.
Peace in the Church (31)
Luke then comments in verse 31 about the changes that happened in the church with the departure of Saul who had been both a leader in the persecution of the disciples, and then later the lightning rod for that same persecution. “31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.”
The church continued to grow whether there was persecution against it or not for God is busy doing His work in all circumstances. That is still true today. We must be careful not to get so caught up with the circumstances of our lives that we forget that important truth. No matter what we face, good or bad, God is at work accomplishing His will. He simply wants us to be faithful to him, just as Saul turned out to be.
Paul wrote in 1 Tim. 1:13 that though he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor and violent aggressor he was show mercy because he acted ignorantly in unbelief and that the grace of the Lord was more than abundant. If God could be gracious to Saul, he can be gracious to you. Not only is the news of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ to be given to all people, but God also desires to use all those that will follow Christ as vessels of honor to glorify himself. Saul did not wait until he had lots and lots of training and experience before telling others about Jesus. He began with what he knew, and then just got better at it with increasing knowledge and training. The same is to be true for us. If you are willing to be faithful to Him, He will use you and increasingly so as you continue in faithfulness.
Those are the best resolutions that I can think of for a New Year. 1). Resolve to be a follower of Jesus Christ for He is the way, the truth, and the life. 2) Resolve to be faithful in following Him that you might be used for His eternal purposes rather than you own, fleeting, temporal ones.
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.
Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.
Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) Count how many times Saul is mentioned. Talk with your parents about what changed his life and how you can follow his example.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.
Why did Saul have such intense hate for the disciples of Jesus? What was his background? Why did he want letters from the High Priest? Describe what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. What was the effect of this event upon Saul both immediately and long term. Who was Ananias of Damascus? Why was he so hesitant to obey the Lord and go to Saul? What would you have done if you had been Ananias? What assurance did the Lord give to Ananias? Are there any principles in that assurance that can give comfort to you today? List in order the actions of Ananias. List in order the responses of Saul. How important is baptism in the life of a believer? Why? If you are a believer that has not been baptized – why? and what steps will you take today to correct your disobedience to Him? How much training did Saul have before he began to tell others about Jesus? How much training do you need in order for you tell others about Jesus? What happened as Saul got more training? How did the Jews in Damascus react to Saul? What happened to Saul? How did the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem react to Saul? What happened to Saul? What are your resolutions for the New Year? Share those with someone else who will keep you accountable to fulfill them.
Sermon Notes – January 1, 2006
The Conversion of Saul – Acts 9:1-31
Saul’s Intent (vs. 1,2)
The Lord’s Intervention (vs. 3-9)
The Lord Reveals Himself (vs. 3-7)
The Effect on Saul (vs. 8,9)
The Ministry of Ananias (vs. 10-19a)
The Lord’s Call (vs. 10-12)
His Hesitancy (vs. 10-14)
The Lord’s Assurance (vs. 15-16)
Ananias’ Actions (vs. 17-19a)
Saul Proclaims Jesus (vs. 19b-30)
In Damascus (vs. 19b-25)
In Jerusalem (vs. 26-30)
Peace in the Church (vs. 31)
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