We ended chapter eight last week with the story of Philip the evangelist who left a powerful and highly successful preaching ministry before large crowds in Samaria. Why – out of obedience to the Lord. God called Philip to proclaim the gospel to a single man, an Ethiopian traveling on a desert road. Because of his obedience and this single man’s conversion the gospel was then taken to the continent of Africa and was spread into the power structures of another government.
Philip followed the Spirit’s leading and great things happened, as they always do when we obey the Lord. We may not be privy to what occurs, but remember Jesus told us in John that His Father is always working and that He too is at work. Whether we see results or not, we can be assured of the power of God transpiring in all that He calls us to do.
Today we are going to delve more deeply into one of the greatest stories of personal transformation you will ever hear! And in this story we see how Saul, a prideful, self-righteous man, would later become known as Paul the apostle to the Gentiles and the greatest missionary the world has ever known. The great reversal in Saul, his repentance – began on the road to Damascus. In his renewal process Saul grew from being highly self-centered to being centered only in Christ.
Saul came to know Christ in a deeply profound way. His personal relationship with the Lord led to his experiencing, as he shares in Philippians 3:10, the power of the Lord’s resurrection, fellowship with Him through suffering and becoming like Him in death. Knowing Jesus comes through not only the acquisition of factual knowledge, but also experiential knowledge, knowledge that is gained through personal experience. And in Saul’s case, through his intensely personal relationship with the Lord, he experienced complete and total transformation. However, before any of that occurred, he was struck down by the Lord and deeply humbled in the process.
So, chapter nine in the Acts of the Apostles opens with Philip having vanished from the picture and we are reintroduced to Saul once again. You know, the man who was persecuting Christians. He had basically declared war on them, much like some extremist groups of today have declared war on followers of Christ. Let’s face it, Saul hated Christians! He hated them so much that he actually got permission from the high priest, Caiaphas, to pursue them all the way to Damascus, thus, basically pursuing them to their very death.
Damascus was located 150 miles away from Jerusalem, so it was a good 4-6 days of travel depending on the speed of the travelers’. Damascus was the closest important city outside of the Holy Land and it had a large Jewish population. It was a key commercial city in the Roman province of Syria and several trade routes linked Damascus to other cities throughout the Roman world. Saul may have thought that by stamping out Christianity in Damascus, he could prevent its spread to other areas.
The fact that Saul was authorized with warrants from the priest to imprison followers of Jesus indicates his high standing among Jewish religious leaders. He had planned to bring them back to Jerusalem since it was the center of Judaism. But he was stopped in his tracks literally mid-stride. You see, Saul thought he was persecuting heretics, the people of The Way, which was a common name for the early Christians. But in actuality he was persecuting Christ Himself, because anyone who persecuted believers was persecuting Jesus.
So what happened? He and his companions are on the road when all of a sudden they were overcome by a blinding light from heaven! Now keep in mind, it’s about noon, so it’s already light out, but this light was shockingly white, shockingly bright. Unlike anything any of us have ever seen before. It was so distressing, they all literally fell to the ground and then Saul heard someone say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. Saul’s question, “who are you Lord,” does not necessarily indicate his recognition of Jesus. Rather Lord was also used as a reverential address in reply to any heavenly figure. Or as some scholars have suggested, it was simply the equivalent to our use of the word “sir” today – it was a title implying respect.
Jesus then not only revealed His identity to Saul, but He made him aware of whom he was really persecuting, followed by instructions to go into the city. However, when Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, he discovered he was blind.
Now have you ever wondered why God blinded him? I certainly have! Perhaps it was because He needed to break Saul of his pride and self-righteous behavior and wanted him to become aware of His authority and power. Or, maybe it was what was needed for Paul to surrender to the Lord. God took him to a state of helplessness – of complete and total dependence on Him. Another possibility is despite what Saul believed about who he was; he was very, very lost. And because of that, he needed to lose his sight in order to actually gain it. He wouldn’t be able to clearly see God unless his old way of looking at things was literally taken from him – but enough speculation.
I wonder what went through Saul’s mind, what he was thinking – what he was feeling at that moment when he opened his eyes and discovered his blindness. Going immediately blind, going immediately deaf, becoming paralyzed in an instant, anything like that is going to cause a crisis in an individual’s life.
So here we have this man, a man of great intellect, great influence, great power, whom all of a sudden is being led by his hands, like a small child, because he can’t see to find his own way. That’s telling isn’t it? Talk about loss of independence. Talk about loss of identity. Talk about humbling. Did fear grip his heart? Did terror? We are told he was blind for three days and that he did not eat or drink anything during that time.
And that’s just one side of the equation. Even more importantly, he had to have been overcome by not only shock, but tremendous remorse, and extreme guilt as the enormity of what he had been doing all along sunk in. His horrific actions toward those who believed in Christ surely dawned on him more and more over the course of those three days. Again, this must have been a very humbling experience for him. Have you ever been humbled by God? I know I certainly have. And it’s never a fun situation. Nor is it comfortable. And unfortunately, just like Saul, pride is a sin the vast majority of Christians struggle with whether we realize it or not.
But fortunately for Saul, God had a plan. He always does you know?! He had a plan that He made apparent to both Saul and Ananias, the man who would heal Saul of his blindness. When the Lord reveals His plan to Ananias, however, it appears Ananias questions the Lord’s judgment. After all he has heard about Saul. He knew what Saul had been doing to his brothers and sisters in Christ. He may have felt fear in his heart and wandered if he too would be persecuted?
The Lord assures him however, that He has chosen Saul as His instrument to proclaim His name to the Gentiles, to their kings and to the people of Israel. Thus, despite Ananias’ uncertain and perhaps anxious feelings, he obeyed God, just as Philip obeyed God. He healed Paul and ministered to him with love. Interestingly, God first revealed His plan for Saul to Ananias, rather than Saul. Bear in mind that He often does that in our lives too. Others become aware of our calling before we do. They see things in us before we see it in ourselves. And remember, God often does use people to affirm for us when He speaks to us.
Now when thinking about this transformation, it is important to understand that Paul’s Damascus road experience was not merely a vision. The resurrected Christ actually appeared to Saul. This truth is stated twice in this very chapter in verses 17 and 27. And the substance of this story is told two more times, in Paul’s speech before the crowd in Jerusalem in 22:3-16 and in his testimony before Agrippa and Festus in 26:4-18. The conversation is reported in somewhat different terms in the parallel accounts, but there is no basic discrepancy in the general content of what is said in each scene as a whole.
Paul personally met Jesus Christ and his life was never the same. When confronted by Christ, Paul acknowledged Him as Lord, surrendered his life to Him, resolved to obey Him and developed a deeply abiding relationship with Him. This is what true conversion is – acknowledgment, surrender, obedience and relationship. The lives Paul touched were changed and challenged by meeting Christ through him. And please note God did not waste any part of Paul – his background, his training, his citizenship, his mind or even his weaknesses. He will use our past and our present so we may serve Him with our future.
We make a mistake when we limit God. He knows who He wants to call, He knows how to get their attention, and He can do it anytime and anywhere. He can do anything! Nothing is too hard for Him as we learn in the book of Job. Nothing is impossible for Him as we hear in Luke. Rather, with God all things are possible as stated in Matthew. We just need to obey and follow His leading, even and especially when He leads us to difficult circumstances, people and places. Of course this is where we want to balk – to talk back – to question, just as Ananias did. But instead we must persevere on, we must endure for the Lord’s sake.
Remember, sometimes God breaks into a life in a spectacular manner, as He did in Paul’s life and in the life of my brother in Christ – Jeff. And sometimes conversion is a quiet experience! The right way to come to faith in Jesus is whatever way God brings you! Was your conversion a spectacular experience or a quiet experience??Let us pray:Holy God we praise Your name! We praise Who You are! We praise what You have done for each of us! Thank You for Your Son Jesus, for the Holy Spirit, for the breath of life! Thank You for the opportunity to witness for You, to serve You with all that we are. And now let us pray the words our Lord and Savior Jesus taught us. Our Father……