Lesson 20: The Conversion of Saul
Welcome again to our study in Acts. This is Acts lesson #20. In our last lesson we covered Philip and the conversion of the eunuch. As Luke drew the curtain the Ethiopian eunuch was rejoicing as he parted company with Philip and his chariot headed back to that distant land. Philip the preacher was headed for Caesarea. As he went out of our view, he was preaching and teaching in all the villages along the way. As fascinating as it has been to follow the labors of Philip the deacon, Luke now turns that ancient writing instrument to describing that young man Saul. You will recall the first verse in Chapter 8 said,
and Saul was consenting unto his death.
He held the garments of those suborned men who threw the first stone at the murder of Stephen. Most likely Saul did more that just give his consent to the death of Stephen. Much can be gleaned from the New Testament concerning this man. For example, we shall discover later, in this book, that he was a foreign born Jew from the province of Cilicia. You will find that land mass adjoining the Mediterranean Sea at the very northeastern corner of that Sea. Thus, he most likely would have been classified with those Grecian Jews in Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, it is very likely, he was in the first rank among those who disputed with Stephen in the Synagogue of the Freedmen of the Libertines, as the King James Version says in Acts 6:9. You will recall, that verse lists members of that synagogue, along with others,
them of Cilicia.
Therefore, if Saul was not in that group, he was the friend and crony of them that were. He was a Pharisee according to Acts 23:6. He was a student of Gamaliel; Acts 22:3. He excelled about many of his own age and was very zealous in the Jew's religion, Galatians 1:14. Some think, that Acts 26:16 implies that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. This young, up-coming Jew was well educated, he was a leader and knew no bounds to patriotism in that cause. I trust you remember Acts 8:3,
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.
He believed Jesus was an imposter and perhaps had never given a second thought to any other possibility. He was committed to making sure the disciples did not pass that Gamaliel test. He was trying to bring them to naught. Like the eunuch, he was unaware of any concern and action behind the scenes. Thus, he thought nothing of putting himself in jeopardy of the Gamaliel warning.
lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.
Chapter 9 opens with Saul still energetically at his occupation of destruction. Verses 1 and 2, let's read;
And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the Synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
Can you visualize this zealous Jewish leader, in the very prime of life, leading an expedition to a foreign city to continue that persecution? Damascus was more than 130 miles north of Jerusalem, city #6 on your map. Damascus was in Syria, but I have reason to believe the Jewish population in that city was a very prominent percentage. In the scattering of the church to the four winds from Jerusalem, it is conceivable many disciples fled to that city.
They went everywhere preaching the word.
The news of their success in Damascus must have filtered back to Jerusalem to stir the emotions of Saul. He went to the high priest, Annas the Sadducee or his successor and desired letters. You can see in this move, the high priest AND the Jewish authorities were waging an all-out attempt to silence and destroy the church in every quarter. Notice in verse 2 the letters were addressed to the Synagogues (plural) in Damascus. Obviously, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had no civil authority in that foreign city, but a little political influence exerted on those Syrian authorities by the members of those local synagogues, in a largely Jewish community, along with such letters could have its effect, Saul went prepared to bring ANY DISCIPLE he found, bound unto Jerusalem, to face the council. It is not likely, a person with a less favorable frame of mind, could have been found as a prospect for conversion to Christ. Yet, the general that excels in one army could easily be a great leader and
a great attribute to those on whom he wages war, if ONLY his motivation was reversed. The conversion of Saul was a special case, as we shall see. Jesus saw in Saul the attributes of a great apostle. The time was ripe for Christ to extend his kingdom beyond the bounds of the jews to include the Gentile world. This man Saul, later became the great apostle Paul, and was the writer of either 13 or 14 of the letters in the last half of the New Testament. Do you remember the prophecy in Isaiah 2:2, which has already been read earlier in our study?
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all NATIONS shall flow into it.
Did you get that last phrase?
all NATIONS shall flow into it.
Do you remember the prophecy of Joel that Peter quoted in his sermon on Pentecost?
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon ALL FLESH. (Acts 2:16)
In concluding that sermon Peter said, speaking by the Holy Spirit,
the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to ALL that are AFAR OFF.
The promise eluded to there, undoubtedly, has to do with the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12. And this is what God told Abraham in that promise,
in thee shall ALL FAMILIES of the earth be blessed.
Galatians 3:14 -14 confirms this by saying Christ redeemed us from the law,
that the blessings of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ.
Up until this time, Jesus had been preached to the Jews ONLY but the time was drawing near when the kingdom, as I said, would be extended to the Gentiles also. As I said before, the conversion of Saul was a special case. Romans 11:13 affirms he was an apostle to the Gentiles and it is referred to there as an office. The question in my inquiring reader's mind at this point, naturally is: How was the motivation of such a zealous persecutor of the church reversed? Let's read verses 3-9.
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven; and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutestthoume? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the man which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
It was about noon as they approached Damascus that day after perhaps 4 or 5 days of weary travel. We are not informed as to how they traveled, possibly by horse but most likely on foot. As they were approaching the city of Damascus notice the words of Luke,
Shock and surprise gripped him as a sudden beam of light flashed from the sky. He must have looked into that light, searching for it's source, until the shock and imbalance caused him to fall to the earth. He must have closed his eyes to cut out the piercing and blinding light. Lying upon the ground he heard a voice,
Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Then comes a firm but assuring voice,
I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
Notice, Saul had been persecuting Jesus' disciples but the Lord equates that to persecuting himself. This brought on a trembling and astonishment according to verse 6. Then Saul began to surrender, with the question:
Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? The reply was clear and distinct,
Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
And, then, no more communication. He must have struggled to get to his feet and as he opened his eyes, undoubtedly peeping under the shadow of his hand, his eyes focus on nothing. No man! His companions saw a light and were aware of voices but the communication did not come through to them. They recognized something out of the ordinary had taken place. Verse 7 says they stood speechless. Saul immediately began to carry out those three sentences of the Lord's instruction to go into the city. Can't you just feel the great contrast in deliberate confidence and purpose by which Saul left Jerusalem and the sudden submissive, earth-feeling-steps by which he sensed his way as he was led into Damascus by the hand? So upset he could NOT eat or drink and his sight did not return. We sometimes take for granted the blessings we enjoy, so much so, we never give a thought to what a mess we would be in, if only one of our most basic senses were removed. He went from a brave and courageous man to an invalid in the flash of a light. After three agonizing days the Lord sent help to Saul, let's read verses 10 -16,
And there was a certain disciple in Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for behold, he prayeth, and hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered the Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way; for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel; for I will show him how great things he must surfer for my name's sake.
The Lord dispatched one of his disciples at Damascus to Saul. Notice in verse 11 how the Lord gave Ananias the address of Saul, the street and the house on that street. I assume that was before the invention of house numbers. There is still a "STRAIGHT STREET' in Damascus today. We learn here ALSO Saul was of the city of Tarsus, city #7, in Cilicia. Write it in! Saul was staying at the house of Judas. We know nothing of course about Judas, except, that he must have been a Jew. Possibly he was a synagogue leader. Can you imagine the activity around Judas' house? Saul could not eat or drink and he must have prayed every minute. The word of this incident must have spread both among the Jews and the disciples. Ananias was told to go put his hand on Saul that he might receive his sight. This aroused fear in Ananias because it conflicted with the reports he had heard. How he had received this information, we are not told. The apostles and disciples in Jerusalem most likely had received rumors of this expedition and had dispatched runners to warn the disciples of Damascus. Saul's travel time plus the three days in Damascus allowed ample time for such a message. Did you notice, Ananias referred to the disciples at Jerusalem as "saints?" This is the first time we have come upon this word in the book of Acts. It is used interchangeably with, disciples, brethren, believers, children of God and with "this way," in verse 2. There is no special significance attached to the word here, as is ascribed to it in our big denominational world of titles and vane glory today. Thus, all baptized believers are saints. The word basically means sanctified, i.e. separated or set apart for a holy purpose. Thus, one who is added to Christ's church. It is significant to notice, the Lord does not listen to or accept the arguments and fears of men. In verse 11 he told Ananias,
Arise, and go and in verse I5 after Ananias had aired out his hear-says, the Lord, merely repeated:
Go thy way.
He did however, give Ananias some assurance in verses 15 and 16 though. Get an insight here, analyze the Lord's evaluation of Saul in contrast to that of Ananias. You have the earthly compared to the heavenly. Notice, Saul is a chosen vessel. He will bear the name of Jesus before Gentiles, kings and the Jews. Saul must also suffer great things, according to verse 16. OK, let's see what Ananias did. Let's read verses 17-19,
And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, theLord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou earnest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales; and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received meat, he was strengthened.
Ananias went! Saul received his sight. The King James Version does not require me to understand anything fell from his eyes, if I understand it correctly. It was,
as it had been scales. No real scales. However, the Revised Standard Version reads,
And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.
This period of blindness served as assurance that Saul did not see an illusion! That assurance was as much to others as to Saul. Observe a few things here about first principles. We discussed before some of those formulas dotted about in our religious world today telling people how to become a Christian. Some say, "repent and pray", that's all. Some say, "repent and believe the gospel." Some say, "just believe." Others look for an experience or a feeling. Can you imagine what an ordeal this man, Saul went through? He prayed for three straight days. He had the experiences of experiences. He had repented or changed his mind, three days before. And he must have confessed to them around him several times that he now believed in Jesus. Stephen was right, God did raise Jesus from the dead. I'm sure Luke's account here is abbreviated, just like it was with the eunuch. Thus, we do not know all that Ananias taught Saul. But, notice his attitude - verse 18, he,
forthwith....arose and was baptized.
He was baptized before he ate a bite. After he was baptized, then he received meat and was strengthened according to verse 19. Did you notice in verse 10, Ananias was identified as
a certain disciple at Damascus.
Thus, I conclude that baptism may be administered by any disciple. There is no requirement to be an ordained minister or a church official to baptize. Jesus said, in Matthew 7,
ye shall know them by their- fruits
AND every good tree bringeth forth good fruit.
What Ananias said in verse 17, that Saul would be filled with the Holy Spirit does not imply he received it before he was baptized nor does it imply he received any miraculous measure, at that time. There is no implication here that he received anything more than any baptized believer receives. Now, I understand he possessed miraculous powers at a later time. But that does not prove her received them here. Saul is the only case of conversion in the New Testament that experienced a delay in being baptized. All others were baptized immediately, like the eunuch. Neither did Saul delay when he was told what to do. Part of the Special need for dispatching a disciple to assist Saul grew out of the very nature of the case. As was the case with Ananias, most disciples would have shied away from Saul. And again, as was the case with the eunuch, the divine agency brought the preacher and the prospect together. The divine agency did not do the teaching and baptizing. Saul received and obeyed the same message every other disciple receives and obeyed. Thus, we have the conversion of Saul. One more example in our case book of conversions.