The gospel of Jesus Christ turns His enemies into His servants. This is true for all who are saved, but it is most powerfully illustrated by the conversion of Saul. In an instant, the proud persecutor of the church became the humble, submissive follower of Jesus.
We arrive now at one of the most dramatic conversions in the history of the New Testament church. Frankly, nobody was a more surprising convert to Christianity than Saul, the persecutor of the church. In fact, the early church is going to have a hard time believing it really happened.
Saul was a red-hot, zealous young Pharisee who had been tutored by the great Jewish scholar, Gamaliel. Back in Acts chapter 5, Gamaliel had cautioned the Sanhedrin to leave the apostles alone—to let time prove or disprove their story about Christ. But now, Gamaliel’s young student has become convinced that time is slipping away. In fact, it is now past time to exterminate the followers of Jesus and end this threat to Judaism and their cherished traditions.
In Acts 8, following the killing of Stephen, verse 3 says that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Now we come to chapter 9, where the hunter of Christians is heading toward Damascus. He is planning to capture more Christians—but he is about to be captured by Christ.
Verse 1 says, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest.” The Greek word translated “breathing” in this verse was commonly used to describe war horses snorting breath as they prepared to charge into battle.
Jesus had predicted to His disciples back in John 16:2, “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Well, that certainly describes Saul. He considers this a battle for God and believes he is defending the honor of Judaism and the Jewish distinctives of temple worship. He is convinced he is guarding the nation against the followers of an executed carpenter who posed as a fake Messiah.
Acts 9:2 continues, telling us Saul asked the high priest 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.” “The Way” was the earliest designation for Christianity; it was likely coined by the disciples in honor of their Lord, who declared Himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It is not until Acts 11:26 that the term Christian is used for the first time.
So, this hunter of heretics is given approval from the high priest to capture as many of Jesus’ followers as he can and bring them back to Jerusalem to face imprisonment, interrogation, and, more than likely, death.
He does not know it yet, but the hunter is about to be hunted down by God. Verse 3 records, “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.”
This blinding light forces Saul to the ground, and it is accompanied by a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (verse 4). These words have to be shocking to Saul—“Wait, I’m persecuting God? I thought I was serving God by persecuting followers of Jesus!”
Saul is stunned, but he actually dares to ask in verse 5, “Who are you, Lord?” It is as if he is saying, “Surely, You are not related to these heretic, runaway Jews! I’m persecuting them, not You. So, let me know for certain, Lord; clearly identify Yourself.”
And the Lord God of heaven does exactly that. He answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (verse 5).
Wow! Saul can hardly believe it—it is all true! Jesus, that carpenter turned traveling rabbi, who was beaten and crucified and buried—He really is alive! More than that, He is the resurrected Lord, the Messiah, the Son of the living God! He is everything He said He is—including the way, the truth, and the life!
Imagine what this means to Saul’s racing mind. He must be saying to himself, “Stephen, whose death I approved, and others like him that I have seen put to death—they were innocent. People I condemned as heretics were right; I am the one who is wrong! The high priest is wrong! The Sanhedrin is wrong! We have been persecuting Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth!”
Can you imagine how incredibly encouraging this conversion testimony will be to all Christians—then and now—who suffer persecution? When you are persecuted for your faith in Christ, the enemy whispers in your ear, “You are all alone. God doesn’t care. He doesn’t even see what you are going through.” Those are all lies! God sees; your Savior knows. In fact, what people are doing to you as a follower of Jesus, they are doing to the Savior Himself. The Lord says here to Saul, the persecutor of believers, “You are persecuting Me.”
Over in 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul indicates that he actually saw the resurrected Christ in brilliant display. Beloved, this is not just a bright light; this is the Savior in His postresurrection glory, whom Paul glimpses for a brief moment and will never forget.
Later in the book of Acts, when Paul recounts this experience, he adds that he said, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). He did not say, “What shall I do, Jesus?” Instead, as an act of immediate surrender and worship—and no doubt as an expression of salvation—he called Jesus Lord. He realized that Jesus is the Lord of heaven, none other than almighty God.
Back here in Acts 9, the Lord tells Saul to go on into Damascus, and he will be told what to do next. We are also informed in verse 7 that the men traveling with Saul hear the voice but do not see anybody.
The account continues:
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. (verses 8-9)
Picture this scene. Saul had planned to ride into Damascus with authority and power, bringing fear upon all who proclaimed Jesus Messiah and Lord. But now, he is led by the hand, helpless and humbled.
Frankly, he is in a state of shock. Everything he had believed was wrong; everything he had defended was incorrect; everyone he had wronged was right. The life of this brilliant, proud young man has crumbled down around him. But he’s also entering Damascus a new man—a redeemed sinner, a baby in Christ—and he’s about to be given a new mission in life.
We need to learn a couple of lessons from this most surprising conversion. First, do not underestimate the power of simple truth. Perhaps you are intimidated to speak to someone at work who mocks Christianity. Maybe you think you need a degree in apologetics before you approach some skeptic at school, or you believe you need a deeper understanding of the doctrines of Scripture before you speak. Let me tell you, what God uses to win a person is not the brilliance of your argument but the simplicity of your gospel.
Yes, learn as much as you can, prepare as well as you can, study as diligently as you can; but do not forget to just tell others the truth. Tell them what Christ has done for you. Do not underestimate the power of simple truth.
Second, do not underestimate the reach of God’s grace. As far as the early church was concerned, Saul was enemy number 1. I doubt he was on anybody’s prayer list; I don’t imagine anybody would have wanted to even get near him, much less knock on his door and invite him to church. Saul would have been considered unreachable.
But the Lord can, and does, reach people like Saul—doesn’t He? He reached you and me. Maybe there is somebody you need to put back on your prayer list and stay connected to. Never underestimate the reach of God’s grace.