“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 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. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 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.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.” (Acts 9:1-19a ESV)
There are some things that happen in our lives that just change everything. Some of those events are planned and anticipated, like weddings and births. Some of them are unexpected and dreaded, like a debilitating illness or someone’s death. Either way, events like this have a way of changing us and the direction our lives take. This story in Acts is one of those events. Not only does it impact Saul and the early Church, it will ultimately impact you and me in tremendous ways. Let’s take a look…
We met Saul back in Acts 7 where he appears to have orchestrated the murder of Stephen. Stephen had displayed amazing boldness and accused the Jews, in general, and the Sanhedrin Council, in particular, of misunderstanding God’s prophecies and plan by killing the promised Messiah. When the crowd responded in outrage, Saul consented to their actions and even held their cloaks while they pummeled Stephen with stones. To be honest, I think Saul may have done more than just consent to Stephen’s stoning. I think he incited the crowd’s response and encouraged them to stone him.
We do know that Saul regarded himself as the worst of sinnners…
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 ESV)
And that leads me to direct you towards two primary insights from this passage, the undeniable evidence of the resurrection of Christ and the incredible grace of God.
First, many find the evidence for the truth of the Gospels and the resurrection of Christ to be unconvincing. But the conversion of Saul is hard to deny and is one of the best and strongest arguments for the truth of these claims. The basic argument is that the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection are just too incredible to be factual and must be the result of Apostles’ imagination and desire to memorialize the teachings of Jesus. While most reasonable skeptics don’t deny the historicity of Jesus existence and basic facts of his life and even his death, they doubt the historical accuracy of the miracles, especially the virgin birth and the resurrection. Things like that just don’t happen. They are simply impossible.
But when you get to the story of Saul, it becomes quickly evident that something has happened that defies human logic. If the story of Jesus is false and simply the result of the Apostles’ imagination, then how do you account for the radical change in the Church’s worst enemy, Saul of Tarsus? Saul’s life purpose was to destroy these followers of Christ and put an end to this Jesus nonsense. In fact, he was really, really good at it, as we saw with Stephen. He was passionate and driven to stomp out all remnants of this new group, called “The Way.”
At first, you might wonder why I claim that the conversion of Saul is one of the strongest evidences for the truth of the Gospel and the resurrection. I mean, He’s really just another Christian convert, right? Well, he’s really more than that and it is really quite simple. Something INCREDIBLE must have happened to change this avowed enemy of the church and of Christ to completely flip-flop from being its most ardent opponent to its greatest evangelist.
It is not uncommon for someone who has continually failed in their life goals or who feels as though they’ve reached the bottom of the proverbial “barrel” to turn to unconventional means for turning their life around. I am fascinated by psychological, sociological and anthropological studies and cases. When life gets hard we begin looking for any advice or help that can give us a chance at getting things back on a good path. As the saying goes, when you’re at the bottom the only place left to look is up.
But, Saul was NOT at the bottom of the barrel or unable to meet his life or career goals. He was at the top of his game, at the epitome of his career, on the fast track to stardom among the religious elite of his peer group. Saul’s conversion wasn’t the result of an emotional or spiritual rebound. He wasn’t looking for help, but he certainly changed direction. So, you must be willing to consider that Saul saw something or someone on that road that changed his mind about Jesus and the truth of the resurrection. But, what did he see?
This account in Acts is told by Luke who becomes a friend and traveling companion of Saul. So, the story we are reading is, essentially, Saul telling us what happened that day (for reference, see Gal. 1:11-17; Acts 26). In essence, Saul encounters Jesus at about noon on the highway to Damascus. He is suddenly confronted with the reality of that which he had been questioning, the truth of the resurrection. There’s simply no other explanation for the change that occurs in Saul’s life, Jesus is alive and Saul has just been convinced of this fact.
Now, I want us to spend a few minutes considering the incredible grace this story reveals. When Saul is stopped in his tracks by this bright light from heaven, he is asked “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” Paul responds by asking, “who are you, Lord?” While Saul is initially unsure who is speaking to him, he is certain that whoever it is deserves to be called “Lord.” In the conversation that follows, Jesus identifies himself to Saul and tells him that it is useless to resist or kick against the “stinger” or goads (see Acts 26:14).
Saul’s persecution of the Apostles, the early disciples and the entire church has not only been noticed by Jesus but is actually against Jesus, Himself. Saul wasn’t just opposing a group of fanatical Jews who sought to worship a dead carpenter from Nazareth, he was opposing the very Son of God and the Author of Creation. Saul, why do you persecute me? Why are you opposing the TRUTH and the very will of God? Why are you seeking to destroy those to whom I’ve given eternal life? Why do you claim to love God when you are opposing Him at every turn, even killing His messengers?
God’s grace is so AMAZING that it is able to take the worst enemy of the Gospel and transform him into its greatest agent. The very one who sought to destroy “the Way” is now venturing onto that path. God is able to turn the “chief of sinners” into an example of amazing grace. He can do the same for you. No matter how far you feel you are from God, His grace extends farther and can surround and embrace you. No matter how deep your despair or how low your self worth, God’s grace can lift you into His presence. No matter how ugly your sin, God is capable of transforming you into an example of His grace.
But notice one last thing in this passage…
God’s grace is able to transform persecution into purpose. God is not only able and willing to extend grace to Saul, God also has a purpose and plan for Saul. Go into Damascus where you will be told what to do… the church would have been content to just stop the persecution, but God had a greater plan. He ALWAYS does, and you and I are a part of that plan.
So, just because you’re struggling, hurting or even actively opposing God’s plan doesn’t mean He has given up on you. God can and will use you if you’re willing to surrender your purpose and you plan and embrace His. The grace He extended to Saul is available for you. The love He has for you is greater than your sin and more powerful than your failures. He’s waiting, are you ready?