Since early this summer, we have been traveling through the book of Acts and today we find ourselves in Acts chapter 9. This chapter records one of the most significant events in the history of the early church – perhaps second only to the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Very few other events have changed the course of Christianity (or even the course of history for that matter) like the event we’re going to read about today.
Today, we’re going to read about how a man named Saul came to know and follow Jesus. And while his story seems fairly dramatic and out of the ordinary, the things he experienced and the process that he went through – bringing him to faith in Christ – are actually very similar for all of us who come to acknowledge Christ as our Saviour.
There is a certain pattern – a certain sequence of events that need to happen for any of us to experience God’s salvation. Of course, the exact details and the timeline and how it all unfolds are likely different for each one of us, but the process and the pattern that God uses will be the same.
And so even before we get into the passage today, let me just give you the four-point pattern of Salvation that we’re going to see in this passage – that way, as we go through Saul’s story, looking at the process that he went through, you can see if you can identify that same process in your own life and your own story.
So really quickly, here they are.
- Jesus Christ reveals himself to you. In Saul case, it’s quite a dramatic reveal – but that may not be the case of you. Your introduction to Christ might be a little more subtle. Either way, Christ makes Himself known to you and calls you to respond.
- You respond by acknowledging Jesus as the resurrected Son of God. This is when you begin to see Jesus for who He really is. There’s a recognition and acknowledgement there that wasn’t there before.
- Having acknowledged who Jesus really is, you willingly submit your life to Him and seek to be obedient to Him. As your Lord and Saviour, you want to serve and obey Him with your whole life.
- As a result of your trust in Christ and your willingness to be obedient to Him, God begins the process of transformation. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within you – changing you into a new person. You are adopted in the family of God as His child, and you begin to live a new life.
And of course, as I said before, the exact details and the timeline and how this all unfolds are likely different for each one of us, but the process and the pattern that God uses is the same. He did this for Saul, and he does this for us today.
So on that note, let’s take a look at the story of Saul and see how this pattern plays out in his experience.
But before we begin, let me just quickly review what we’ve already been told about this man named Saul. Back in Acts chapter 7, we read about the stoning of Stephan – the first Christian martyr. He was the first person to be put to death for his faith in Jesus. And Acts chapter 7 verse 58 tells us that as his accusers…
“….dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
So that’s the first time we’re introduced to Saul. He’s a young man present at the stoning of Stephen – apparently in charge of watching over everyone’s coats as they throw the rocks that will murder Stephen. But he’s not just a random bystander who just happened to be there. Just a little further in Acts chapter 8 verse 1 we read that:
“Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.” Acts 8:1a
Not only was Saul there witnessing this whole gruesome event, but he was in hearty agreement with it! He agreed completely that Stephen ought to have been stoned to death for his faith in Christ.
Not you might wonder, what kind of person would have such hearty agreement with someone being put to death like that?
Well, we actually get a good description of Saul in Philippians chapter 3. Saul writes this about himself:
5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.
In other words, Saul was about as religious as they come. As a Pharisee, he was devoted to obeying the smallest letter of the law. He was sure that his careful obedience to the Torah and his zeal to make sure that everyone else obeyed it as well, that was what would earn him his reward in heaven.
As so, since Stephen was following and promoting this false teacher named Jesus – a man that had already been put to death on a cross for his blasphemy – claiming to be the Son of God… Well, Saul thought they would all do God a great favour by putting this sinner, Stephen, to death!
In fact, after killing Stephen, Saul made it his mission in life to eradicate all those who would follow this Jesus fellow. Acts 8:1 continues by saying…
A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) 3 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.
Saul was dedicated to eradicating the church. And I have no doubt that Saul was fully convinced that He was doing God’s work. Just like how Joshua and King David were doing the work of the Lord when they destroyed the enemies of God back in the Old Testament, so Saul believed that He was doing the work of the Lord as he attempted to destroy the church in the present time.
So as the followers of Jesus fled Jerusalem – sharing the Gospel message where ever they went – Saul continued to hunt them down – even following them to other cities to arrest, imprison, and put them to death. And that’s about where we pick up the story now in Acts chapter 9 verse 1 – which read like this:
Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. 2 He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.
Now there are just a couple little quick notes that I want to make here. First of all, notice how Saul was going to Damascus to arrest any followers of the Way. This is the first of five times in Acts that we see the followers of Jesus being called “Followers of the Way”. In a couple of chapters from now we’ll see how they eventually become known as Christians “or Christ-ones” – but initially, they were called followers of the Way. Which I think is a pretty fitting title. Jesus said in John 14:6…
6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus made it very clear that He is the only way to the Father. He’s not one of many ways – He is THE way. He is the only way we can have forgiveness and joy and peace and life. There is no other way to truly experience those things.
So I think it’s very fitting that even those who persecuted the followers of Jesus referred to them as followers of the Way. There’s a real nugget of truth even just in that title.
The second thing to notice is that Saul was so intent on chasing down the followers of Jesus, that he was prepared to hunt them down even in foreign countries. It says…
He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.
The city of Damascus was in the neighbouring country of Syria – it was about 200 kms away from Jerusalem. But yet, Saul was so determined to arrest every follower of Jesus that he was willing travel all the way to Damascus to arrest all the Christians there, and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
And it’s interesting that Luke specifies for us that Saul wanted to arrest both men and women. In that culture, women were not usually the most influential people. They weren’t usually the movers and the shakers back then. So for Saul to target both men and women – not only in Jerusalem but in foreign cities hundreds of kms away – that really shows us how intent Saul was to completely eradicate this Jesus movement. He didn’t want to leave any survivors who might continue to spread the message of Christ.
But as Saul makes his way to Damascus, it’s here God completely intervenes and changes the course of Saul’s life forever. Let’s take a look at verse 3
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?”
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.”
7 The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! 8 Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. 9 He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.
Now so far through the book of Acts, we’ve seen thousands of people come to faith in Christ – but as far as we’ve seen, none have experienced such a dramatic shock to their system and to their system of beliefs! But perhaps no one else yet needed it like Saul did.
As we’ve seen in his intense desires to eradicate the followers of the way, His system of beliefs were built around the fact that Jesus was a liar, a false teacher, and a fraud! And he didn’t just believe that a little bit – he had a rock solid conviction that it was so! Everything in his life and everything that he had experience up to this point had reinforced in his mind that Jesus was the enemy of God!
And so I imagine it probably required such a drastic and shocking introduction to Jesus, the resurrected Son of God, to break down that old system of belief!
Verse 9 tells us that he remained in Damascus for three days – being blind and not eating or drinking anything. I imagine he spent that time trying to rebuild his system of beliefs. If Jesus was truly the resurrected Son of God, that would change everything.
His understand of the Old Testament Scriptures… His understanding of who God was and what God was doing in the world…. His ideas of how to please and serve God… And certainly, his current mission in life to eradicate the church… Everything he thought he knew was wrong!
And then, just think of the guilt and regret that he’d have to process…. Think of the lives he had already destroyed as he imprisoned and murdered the followers of the Way. Think of how he had been foolishly fighting against God – the One he had thought he was zealously serving!
I can’t imagine the turmoil in Saul’s mind over those three days (and I’m sure into the weeks ahead as well) as Saul tried to come to grips with everything that had happened.
But of course, in His kindness and grace, Jesus didn’t come just to convict Saul of his stupidity and sin! Jesus didn’t appear to Saul just to condemn him for persecuting his church and then leave him to languish in sorrow and blindness.
No! God had a redemptive plan for Saul – just like He does for each one of us. God had a plan for forgiveness and mercy. A plan for new life and a new purpose. Take a look at the next few verses.
10 Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord!” he replied.
11 The Lord said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now. 12 I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.”
13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! 14 And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.”
15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
This really is incredible! What a plan of restoration! The man responsible for the imprisonment and death of many followers of Jesus was God’s chosen instrument to spread the Gospel all over the world! Who would have ever thought?
Certainly not Ananias! He had heard all about this Saul fellow and how ruthlessly he had persecuted the believers! What’s more, he had heard that Saul was on his way to Damascus, armed with the authorization of the leading priests to arrest every believer in that city too!
And it’s actually kinda funny that Ananias feels it necessary to remind the Lord what a dangerous person Saul was – as if God had maybe become confused or made a mistake!
But there was no mistake! God made it quite clear to Ananias that he knew full well who Saul was, but also more importantly, He knew who Saul would become. Saul, of all the people on the planet, was God’s chosen instrument to bring the Gospel message to the Gentiles, to Kings, and to the people of Israel.
And so with that confirmation from the Lord, Ananias obey God’s instructions and headed off to Straight Street. Verse 17
17 So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength. Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. 20 And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!”
What an incredible and immediate transformation! From a murderous zealot hunting down the followers of the Way to an impassioned evangelist preaching about Jesus in the synagogues!
The transformation was so incredible that everyone had a hard time believing it. Verse 21 says..
21 All who heard him were amazed. “Isn’t this the same man who caused such devastation among Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem?” they asked. “And didn’t he come here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests?”
22 Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. 23 After a while some of the Jews plotted together to kill him. 24 They were watching for him day and night at the city gate so they could murder him, but Saul was told about their plot. 25 So during the night, some of the other believers lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the city wall.
26 When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! 27 Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.
28 So Saul stayed with the apostles and went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He debated with some Greek-speaking Jews, but they tried to murder him. 30 When the believers heard about this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus, his hometown.
31 The church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers.
What a crazy story – and this is only the beginning what God would do through Saul – who would of course, eventually become known as Paul. Over the next many years, Paul would travel to many different countries – preaching and starting churches in many different cities. In fact, he would go on to write letters to those churches and to other individuals that he ministered to – and several of those letters have since become a significant portion of our Bibles today! No less than 13 of our 27 books of the New Testament were written by Paul!
Very few people have shaped and influenced Christianity like this man – who at one time was going around, breathing out murderous threats, eager to imprison or kill the followers of Jesus.
And if God can totally transform a guy like Saul, imagine what He might do with a man or woman like you?
Now I know that most of us do not have a dramatic conversion story like this, but as I mentioned earlier, while Saul’s experience may have been very different from ours in how it all came about, the process he went through to come to faith and then be transformed through Jesus is the same for us.
You’ll remember that four-point pattern of Salvation that I share with you at the beginning.
The first step was that Jesus Christ reveals himself to you. As we’ve seen in Saul story, sometimes it’s quite a dramatic reveal – but that’s not always the case. For many of us, we were just raised in a Christian home and were taught about Jesus from a young age. That was certainly my experience. Or maybe you heard about Jesus from a friend or the preacher or at a Bible study or at Bible Camp. Or maybe like, Saul, you had a dramatic experience where you came to know the presence of God in a very real way. But one way or another, Christ makes Himself known to you and calls you to respond.
That might even be happening right now as we speak. Perhaps as we’ve read the Scriptures and sang the songs and spent time in prayer this morning, you’ve become aware of the reality and the presence of God. Maybe for the first time or in a new way you’ve come to realize that there is a God who loves you like crazy – so much so that He sent His Son Jesus to die on a cross, in your place so that you could have life with Him forever.
And if that’s the case, then I would strongly encourage you to respond by acknowledging Jesus as the resurrected Son of God. That’s the second step that we talked about. Romans 10:9-10 says…
9 If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. Romans 10:9-10
That seems to be exactly what Saul did as he sat there blinded by light asking “Who are you, Lord?” And when Jesus responded “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!” – I believe at that moment, Saul believed that Jesus is Lord and that God had raised Him from the dead. All of his earlier beliefs about this false teacher Jesus where thrown out the window and he was convinced that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God.
And I just wonder this morning, have you come to that same conclusion? Have you come to truly believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead?
Because when you come to realize exactly who Jesus is, then the only logical thing for you to do is to submit your life to him and seek to be obedient to him. That’s the third step. You want to serve and obey Him with your whole life.
We see the first hint of that when Saul obediently waits in Damascus for further instructions. God said “Go into Damascus and you will be told what to do.” And so Saul went. But we see even further evidence of his obedience when Saul becomes baptized. As Ananias lays hands on him so that Saul can regain his sight, we read in verse 18…
18 Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength.
It’s kinda interesting that Saul didn’t even eat anything until after he was baptized – even though he hadn’t eaten anything in three days! Instead, he immediately got up and was baptized as a sign of his obedience and submission to Christ. It was only after he was baptized that he ate some food to regained his strength.
And of course, this was just the first step of obedience in a lifetime journey that would follow. Saul would continue being obedient to the voice of the Lord for the rest of his life – even though he would be persecuted and suffer a great deal because of his obedience.
You’ll remember how God had said to Ananias “And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” And suffer he did. In fact, twice already even before this chapter is through, Saul’s life is in jeopardy because He has chosen to follow the Lord.
He had gone from being the persecutor to being the persecuted – which certainly speaks to the dramatic transformation that He experienced.
Which is the fourth step in our salvation. As a result of our trust in Christ, God begins the process of total transformation. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within you – changing you into a new person. You are adopted in the family of God as His child, and you begin to live a new life.
I don’t know if you noticed, but when Ananias greets Saul, he says in verse 17:
…“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 9:17
Brother Saul. Saul was no longer a feared enemy, but a brother. He had been adopted into the same family as Ananias – they were brothers in the family of God. What’s more, Saul was then filled with the Holy Spirit – God Himself came to reside within Saul – transforming him from the inside out. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says…
17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 2 Corinthians 5:17
I think there are many people here who can give testimony to that – how when God came into their lives, they became a brand new person! And that was certainly the case for Saul. He had become a new person with a new identity and and purpose in life. He even got a new name! He would spend the rest of his days preaching boldly about the reality of Jesus Christ.
What a testimony to the goodness and the power of God to change a life!
And just as we close this morning, I want to leave you with that thought: Have you experience that total life-transformation that comes from knowing and trusting in Jesus?
Has God been revealed Himself to you recently – in a subtle or dramatic way?
Have you acknowledge Jesus as the risen Son of God – believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that He is Lord?
Have you made that choice to submit your whole life to Him and to obey Him no matter what the cost?
If not, I would encourage you to do so today. God is calling you – not to condemn you – but to forgive and transform you. God wants to adopt you into His family – as his son or daughter. He wants to fill you with His Holy Spirit – transforming you into a new person, giving you a new purpose and a new identity!
But the question that remains for each one of us is this: how will you respond to His call?