The Conversion of Saul
Acts 9 : 1 - 19
Saul was a conflicted person. He was not at peace within himself. He had issues. Unresolved issues. He did not know how to deal with them. So he flung himself into his work which at that time was pursuing and persecuting Christians. This he did with vengeance accompanied by violent language. But what was the source of his inner turmoil? It was the death of Stephen, the manner of the death of Stephen who had asked the forgiveness of God on those who took his life as a young man, younger even than Jesus. Secondly, it was the attitude and demeanour of those Christians he had arrested and thrown into prison. They had not returned violence for violence. They had suffered with dignity, civility, patience and grace. They had not shown fear, had not pleaded for their lives and not tried to bribe their way out of their predicament. This example was eating away at Saul’s inner conscience while he tried to overcome its effect on him with greater commitment to eradicating heresy against Judaism.
Saul asked for and was granted extradition letters and arrest warrants to bring back Christians who had fled to Damascus to escape the Jerusalem persecution and set out on the journey of 140 miles. He began probably walking although some later Christian paintings depict him travelling by horseback and he expected to take a week to get there. He had a guard of Temple officers but as a strict Pharisee, he did not converse with them or eat with them on the way. He was left to his own thoughts. He went through Galilee and that would have reminded him of Jesus of Nazareth. Damascus which is much in the news these days, was one of the oldest cities in the middle east. Before reaching it coming from Jerusalem travellers had to climb Mount Hermon and from there looked down on the lovely white city set amid the surrounding green fertile plain. The area was well known for its electrical storms caused by the hot air from the plain meeting the cold air of the mountain range which rose to a height of 9232 feet - more than twice the height of Ben Nevis.
Verses 3 and 4 say 'As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him'. This could have been a lightening strike close by, very close by perhaps, which caused Saul to fall down or perhaps throw himself down. Certain sceptics think that Paul may have suffered from epilepsy - his thorn in the flesh - and that he had an episode which flung him to the ground. It is possible that he was partially blinded by looking at the sun. It could have been a purely spiritual light that he saw with his inward spiritual mind. The text does not say that the men with Paul suffered in the same way. It is clear that they did not. What happened, happened to Saul alone. The text continues He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'. The question was 'Why are you doing this, Saul?' Some might suggest that for most of that week’s travelling Saul might have been asking himself the same question 'Why am I doing this?' Maybe not though. Was this an audible as it were physical voice? The text is inconclusive. Verse 7 says that those with Saul heard the sound but did not see anyone. There may have been a sound of thunder, as we know it which the others heard but the words, clear and unequivocal, were addressed only to Saul. These words were implanted in Saul’s mind and he received them as thoughts. That is how God speaks to us. That is how God spoke to little Samuel as he slept in the sanctuary at Shiloh. This how God spoke to Isaiah and to Jeremiah. This is how God called many to His service over the Christian centuries. Men and women have been travelling in one direction - suddenly - they find themselves called to travel in another. The familiar great Christians John Newton, John Wesley, Peter Marshall and Billy Graham were all likewise living in ignorance of God’s will and in opposition to it and were roundly and soundly converted to become witness for Jesus Christ. I myself had such an instant call to the ministry and if there is anything of immediacy in my preaching today it is founded and grounded in the nature of that calling. But that sense of closeness and of directness is not for just a few here and there, it is a daily providence for every Christian who seeks to live in the immediate friendship and service of the Lord. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, for example, is about as intimate as you can get with God.
Saul’s own account is what we are reading. He told Luke that his response was 'Who are you, Lord?' It seems a natural enough and a reasonable request. Little Samuel heard a voice but had no idea whose it was? Even I when I was called to the ministry was not sure 100% that it was the God and Father of Jesus who was calling me. But I agreed that the only way to find out was to answer the call and find out in the years following if the call would be confirmed in the Church and in life’s events - which it was. However, it is given to few to hear such definite identification as Saul received. 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting'. This - the Risen Jesus, of course. Today’s psychologists might suggest that this was a form of auto-suggestion, the coming to the surface of subconscious thought, the result of Paul’s inner conflict and of his near week long solitary self-examination on that road to Damascus. The better explanation is the simpler, the one that fits and is consistent with the resurrection appearances of Jesus and the history of the Church ever since. It was Jesus indeed. For He is risen indeed. But there was no condemnation. God the Sovereign Lord does not need to condemn us. He is above that. God is interested in saving us and putting us to good use. 'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do'. The Christian writes Os Guiness says, 'Thus, for followers of Christ, calling neutralises the fundamental position of choice in modern life'. 'I have chosen you,' Jesus said, 'you have not chosen me'. We are not our own; we have been bought with a price. We have no rights, only responsibilities. Following Christ is not our initiative, merely our response, in obedience. Nothing works better to debunk the pretensions of choice than a conviction of calling. Once we have been called, we literally 'have no choice'.
Saul did not argue. It is not easy for us to describe his state of mind, his emotions, his feelings. He must have been stunned. Shaken. But perhaps he was calmed and reassured by this encounter with Jesus. When he rose up - he could not see. And the warrior of hatred was led into Damascus by the hand, his life’s surrender to Jesus Christ just beginning. How vulnerable he must have felt. How dependent. How weak and exposed. And yet within his conflicted person had found the beginnings of peace. This was better than before and Saul knew it already. He fasted perhaps because of the benign trauma that had visited him, he had no appetite. Perhaps he, being a Pharisee and used to fasting, naturally enough took no food in the midst of this life changing spiritual transcending occurrence.
Ananias is one of the unsung heroes of the Christian Church. His life shows clearly the difference real Christianity makes to all of our natural human instincts and tendencies for self-interest, self-protection, criticism and judgement of others, tribalism and insularity, too much of which is found in congregations. The risen Jesus was directing operations personally. Ananias received instructions to find and help Saul. He was to go to the equivalent of our Princes Street in Edinburgh. Damascus’ Straight Street ran right through the city from east to west with shops and stalls on the pavements. Against his own thoughts and feelings he obeyed - but only after he was reassured that Saul was to become a Christian. 'This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name'. The persecutor would become the persecuted for the sake of Jesus Christ. We know that that did happen. Many ears later, Paul summed up his sufferings as an apostle in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11.
'Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches'.
Ananias had the gift of making friends, of welcoming and of personal warmth. But he had more than that. He embraced Saul and greeted him Brother Saul. Amazing words. The Church’s greatest enemy, now a friend, companion and fellow-worker to be. Saul had been a hateful and hate-filled man without humanity, a successful Pharisee but not a good advertisement for the best of Judaism as described in the Old Testament. His first Christian friend Ananias warmly welcomed him as an equal and as a brother in Christ. In the Church we are not so kind or warm to one another and often even less so to those who join us in Church as visitors. The hard lesson of Christian obedience is that the Church is not ours and is not here for us. We are here for Jesus Christ and for His Church.
Saul received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by Ananias. His sight returned. He was baptised there and then and broke his fast and had a fellowship meal and Holy Communion with the Christians there and his body’s strength returned to normal. Was he happy? You can be sure that he was. What an astonishing thing to happen. Never doubt the reality of the power of God to change lives. Never doubt the reality of the Risen Jesus Christ. Live for Him and serve Him all your days.