1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.. – Acts 9:1-9 ESV
Luke first introduced us to this latest character back at the end of chapter seven, at the stoning of Stephen.
His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
– Acts 7:58 NLT
And in the very next chapter, Luke made mention of the fact that, before Stephen’s body had been long in the grave, Saul had begun his intensive persecution of the followers of Christ.
But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison. – Acts 8:3 NLT
And if we fast-forward to chapter 21, Luke provides a detailed account of a speech that Saul gave to the crowd that had gathered as a result of his arrest by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Saul provided a first-hand explanation of his role as a persecutor of the church of Jesus Christ.
4 “And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. 5 The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.” – Acts 22:4-5 NLT
It is not clear whether Saul set out on his mission to rid the world of Christians on his own, or whether he had been commissioned by the high priest and the Jewish council from the get-go. It is obvious that at some point, he received orders and official paperwork from the high priest and the Sanhedrin, sanctioning his efforts as a self-proclaimed bounty hunter. Saul had taken his work seriously. He saw the followers of “the way” as nothing but religious radicals and troublemakers. As a devout Pharisee, he was determined to protect the religious way of life that had been passed down for generations. He would not tolerate what he believed to be a threat to Judaism, and so he had made it his mission in life to eradicate any and all Christ-followers from the face of the earth. And that had been his objective when he had set out for the city of Damascus that fateful day.
But Saul’s plans were about to run headlong into God’s providential will for his life. He set out that day with one goal in mind: To arrest and imprison Christians. But God had a different outcome in store for him. Saul had plans to arrest Christ-followers, but God had a plan to arrest Saul’s efforts and make him a follower of Christ. What is so fascinating about the story of Saul’s conversion is how it so radically displays the sovereign work of God in this man’s spiritual transformation. At no point in the story do we see Saul portrayed as a seeker or displaying any interest whatsoever in having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Saul despised Jesus, and he hated all those who believed in His name, preached about His resurrection or claimed that this man could provide forgiveness for sins and everlasting life. Saul wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He wasn’t seeking salvation. He wasn’t interested in having his sins forgiven or his life made right with God. As a Pharisee, he would have seen himself as righteous before God because of his status as a Jew, his obedience to the Mosaic law, and his zeal for the ways of God. Luke provides us with a glimpse into what the mindset of Saul was prior to his conversion.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today.” – Acts 22:3 NLT
4 “As the Jewish leaders are well aware, I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 If they would admit it, they know that I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion.” – Acts 26:4-5 NLT
9 “I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. 11 Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.” – Acts 26:9-11 NLT
Saul had been a self-righteous, law-abiding Pharisee. He had not been looking for a Savior when he set out for Damascus. He had been on a mission to seek and destroy Christians. But again, Luke’s recounting of Saul’s conversion provides us with a powerful reminder of the sovereign work of God in the redemption of men. In fact, Saul himself would later write in his letter to the Romans, quoting from the Old Testament Scriptures:
10 “None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT
Saul had not been a God-seeker that day. He had been a God-pleaser. In his mind, he thought that what he was doing would bring glory and honor to God. He was attempting to earn favor with God by doing everything in his power to honor God through his actions. But he was blind to the truth. What he believed to be righteous deeds, done to please God, were actually nothing more than proof of his sinful, hopeless condition. And it was going to take God Almighty to alter the trajectory of Saul’s life. In his letter to the Romans, Saul would go on to quote from the psalms, most likely recalling his own pre-salvation condition.
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery. – Romans 3:15-16 ESV
The path on which Saul had set out was going to end in ruin and misery, not just for those he sought to arrest, but for himself. His current life plan was going to end poorly. But then Jesus Christ stepped into his path.
3 As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” – Acts 9:3-4 NLT
Saul had an unexpected, unplanned encounter with the risen Lord. And Luke makes it clear that Saul had run smack-dab into the one individual he least expected to find.
5 “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.
And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” – Acts 9:5-6 NLT
Saul had set out that day looking for Christians, not Christ. He had made plans to find and arrest followers of Christ, but had no expectations that he would run into Christ Himself. But as the proverb so aptly states: “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps” (Proverbs 16:9 NLT). God had Saul right where He wanted him. And none of it was what Saul had planned. His self-made goals for his day and his life were suddenly disrupted by Jesus. He would eventually make it to Damascus, but totally blind and in need of assistance just to find his way around. The great persecutor was suddenly powerless and helpless. He found himself to be no match for the risen Lord.
But at this point in the story, Saul had no idea exactly who it was that was speaking to him. He simply asked, “Who are you, lord?” And when Jesus responded, it had to have left Saul in a state of extreme confusion. In his mind, Jesus was dead. How could he be hearing a dead man speak? Saul was left speechless. He didn’t have a rebuttal or any further questions. He was at a complete loss as to what was going on. So, all he could do was listen to the directions given to him by Jesus and allow himself to be led by the hand into the city, where he was to await further instructions.
Luke tells us that Saul had lost his sight, his appetite, and the objective of his original mission. There would be no man-hunt for Christians and no arrests made. Saul’s life, as he had come to know it, was over. Something new was about to begin and it would all be because of the sovereign work of God. Saul’s life was about to take a dramatic and diametrically different turn. His days of denying Christ were over. His self-important plans to eliminate Christ and His followers were done. And the reality of the words he would later pen in one of his letter to the Corinthians were about to set in.
…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.