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SAUL’S CONVERSTION

Acts 9:1-9:19a
Key Verse: 9:3-4

For the last several weeks we studied about Stephen and Philip, who were chosen to wait on tables. It is interesting that how they served tables was not written but how they served the gospel work. Stephen was martyred in testifying to Jesus and Philip became an evangelist spreading the gospel to Samaria and the good news about Jesus to an Ethiopian eunuch. They were two indispensible lay gospel servants in the early Christian history written in Acts. When we study Acts, more than half of the story is about St. Paul. Today’s passage is entitled, “Saul’s conversion”; the former name of Paul was Saul. The conversion of Saul is the most famous and significant conversion in church history. Luke wrote this event three times in Acts, once in his own narrative in this chapter, and twice in Paul’s speeches in chapters 22 and 26. In this event supernatural things were involved, and Saul’s change was spectacular and dramatic. Do we all need such experiences? In Acts’ study it is necessary to distinguish what is historically particular and what is universal, or what is atypical and what is typical. It is the case of Saul’s conversion. May we be able to get the message the author wanted to convey through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

First, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Look at verse 1. “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” In Acts so far Luke mentioned the name Saul three times. In 7:58b says, “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” It was when the Sanhedrin members dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him, as Stephen spoke to them about the history of God, urging them to repent. 8:1 says, “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” And 8:3 says, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged of men and women and put them in prison.” Saul seemed to be the main activist of the great persecution that had broken out against the church in Jerusalem. At the time of the great persecution the gospel was spread to Samaria and an Ethiopian eunuch. God was working powerfully to reach out to the unreached people outside Jerusalem through the good news of salvation. But Saul was doing his own work that was against God. No one could stop him. He was like a wild and ferocious beast. He had not changed since Stephen’s death; he was still in the same mental condition of hatred and hostility, still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.

Look at verses 1b and 2. “He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” The high priest was the highest authority at that time and he had been persecuting the apostles. Saul wanted to authorize his persecution by getting (credential) letters from the high priest so that he might arrest Jesus’ people with legal authority. He was not satisfied with persecuting Jesus’ people in Jerusalem. He was going to Damascus as a mission trip overseas for further persecution, willing to walk even 240 km from Jerusalem to Damascus. Most probably, he attempted to eradicate all of Jesus’ people. When he was heading to Damascus, he wanted to take Christians there as prisoners to Jerusalem. We do not know how he would take them to Jerusalem, since the transportation was not like that of our times. Probably, he wanted to drag them from Damascus to Jerusalem, on such a long road. Then he would brag about the number of the people he captured and get recognition from the Jewish authorities. For he thought that was the way to serve God and be approved by God. He was a man of conflict and extreme hatred and malevolence. What could be done with such a person? Certainly, only severe punishment would await him.

But what happened to him? Look at verses 3 and 4. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” We are reminded of Genesis 1:2,3, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Saul was in utter darkness full of hatred and self-righteousness. According to Acts 22:6 and 26:13, it was about noon and the sun was shining. Yet, there was no light in this world that could shine on Saul. Nonetheless to say, the high priest could not light Saul. Rather, acquaintance with him drove Saul into deep darkness. But suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. The light was brighter than the sun (Ac 26:13). The light did not belong to this world. It was from heaven.

Saul could not resist this light from heaven. He fell to the ground. Yet, he did not lose his consciousness and rationale. He heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was likely that someone in heaven had been watching over Saul the whole time of Saul’s persecuting. That someone knew Saul personally, voicing calling his name. Yet, the voice was not the voice of hatred and punishment. Rather when the voice called, “Saul, Saul”, it was the voice of affection, like “Abraham, Abraham” (Ge 22:11) and “Moses, Moses” (Ex 3:4).

The voice spoke continually, “Why do you persecute me?” This voice must have surprised Saul, and his conscience stricken. He thought he was only persecuting the people who belonged to the Way. Yet, it was not. In fact Saul was persecuting the very one, the Why. Even the voice did not say, “Why do you persecute me and my people?” And the voice not only knew Saul but also knew that Saul had known the one who spoke to him at this time. That’s why the voice asked, “Why do you persecute me?” using a personal pronoun of the first person, “me.” Also, the voice did not say affirmatively, “You are persecuting me,” but interrogatively, “Why do you persecute me?” It was so that Saul might think about what he was doing.

In truth Saul in his life heard about Jesus many times. Surely, he heard about the apostles’ standing before the Sanhedrin time and again and testifying before them to Jesus’ death by crucifixion and his resurrection from the dead. Especially, when Stephen prayed at the time of his martyrdom, “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” Saul was right there and it was a clear revelation of Jesus to him. But he suppressed it and kept doing his things against God. Later according to Saul’s testimony about Jesus’ personal grace upon him, Jesus was saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” He was taking a hard way fighting against Jesus, the Son of God. He was heading toward self-destruction despite his great learning. Saul was helpless and hopeless. No one in this world truly cared for him.

When the voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” it was the voice of the shepherd for him. It was the loving voice of the shepherd, risen Jesus, although Saul was against him. It was the voice of the Lord. So Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul knew that it was the voice of Jesus. But he wanted to confirm it, feeling his embracing love and submitting to him by calling him Lord. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice replied. At this Saul’s heart must have melted by the love of Jesus and surrendered his life to the Lord Jesus. Undoubted, Jesus forgave all his sins. Jesus also knew that Saul needed a new life direction. So Jesus continued to speak, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Here we can say that Jesus encountering Saul who was persecuting him is the essence of Christianity. This is all about the love of Jesus that is the love of God. Since man’s fall, there was enmity between God and men. Fallen were the enemies of the holy God. The world has been hostile to God and had extreme hatred toward God. But God sent his Son Jesus into this world. Then even when he was an infant, the world tried to get rid of him. Finally sinful men nailed him to the cross and killed him. But God raised him from the dead and thus won the victory over man’s sin and evilness. It is so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Paul wrote in Romans, “There is no one righteous, not even one…All have turned away…ruin and misery mark their ways…There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Ro 3:10-18). In nature sinners are the object of God’s wrath, for sinful nature is always hostile to God. But God in his mercy has been wanting to reach out all sinners, his enemies through his Son Jesus who was crucified and gave his life as a ransom for many.

Later Paul described the grace of Jesus this way. He said in 1 Timothy, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim 1:15-16). Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

“Sinner” is not a “that’s okay” title, but terrible one before the holy God. Being an enemy of another human being is not easy to bear. We want to be nice to others; no one wants to be an enemy to another. But how about being an enemy of God? It is unthinkable and unimaginable. Can you imagine to live as an enemy of God throughout your life? Then the result will be to receive the consequence of that life, eternal punishment. It is too horrible to think of. We should not forget that you and I were enemies of God because of our sins. But through Christ Jesus who died for us sinners, God reconciled us to himself. How much one must be thankful if he or she is forgiven and accepted and now has peace with God, not in enmity anymore? There was a time for me when I felt enmity with God. My soul feared his punishment because of my unsolved sin problem (legalism and fatalism and selfish and unclean heart) with no word of God. But when I heard the word of God Genesis 12:1,2 and accepted it personally in repentance, I realized that I was moved from the world of curse to the world of blessing and my way to God which was once blocked was opened and my soul was freed and rejoiced, having peace with God.

There are only two states, peace with God or enmity with God. There is no middle ground. One who has peace with God should be thankful for this wonderful grace ever and ever and reign in this grace. But those who are in enmity with God should this problem seriously and urgently. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” is the voice of Jesus for all those who are in enmity with God.” One can have peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

D.L. Moody (1837-1899) was a great American preacher in 19th century. He prayed for a long time that he might have more and more faith. He confessed, “I prayed that on a certain day faith might come upon me like a lightning. But faith did not come in that way. One day I read Romans 10, “faith comes through hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (10:17). Until that time I prayed for faith, closing the Bible. But from that time on I began to study the Bible earnestly and since then my faith grew.” It is true that faith comes through the word of God.

Look at verse 7. “The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.” What Saul experienced was not when he was alone. There were traveling companions. They could be witnesses. Yet, what Saul experienced with Jesus was personal. Then Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. This supports the historicity of the event.

Look at verse 9. “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.” This shows Saul’s sincere and whole-hearted response to the grace of Jesus. When Jesus showed his mercy and grace by capturing him, Saul did not let it go but took hold of it through his resolution in prayer.

Second, “This man is my chosen instrument.” In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. God wanted to use him to restore Saul’s sight. At this Ananias was reluctant to follow the direction because he knew what kind person Saul had been. Ananias could not understand God’s way of working. Ananias, in his human limitation, did not know what God was doing. But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! 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.” This word of the Lord lets us go deeper into the grace of Jesus. Jesus not only forgave and embraced the persecutor but also wanted to use him for his great work of world salvation, especially for spreading the gospel to the Gentiles. Later St. Paul was so grateful that the Lord Jesus considered him faith, appointing him to his service” (1 Tim 1:12). When Jesus encountered Saul, Jesus had the whole picture, the full view of his life. Jesus’ forgiving love and choosing Saul as his instrument for his work cannot be separated. So Paul said in Romans 1:5, “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship…” He also said in 2 Corinthians 5:15, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” We thank God for choosing us as his instrument for his campus mission.

It is interesting that God revealed his plan for Saul’s life through another person, Ananias. At this, what did Ananias do? Then Ananias went to the house of Judas on Straight Street where Saul was staying and entered it. Ananias meaning “The LORD is gracious” was obedient to the Lord, overcoming all his feelings and prejudice. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” According to the word of God, Ananias accepted Saul as his brother, not as a suspicious one anymore. And he did what the Lord told him to do. Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. God used Ananias for the restoration of Saul’s sight and baptism. And after taking some food, he regained his strength. Being strengthened through food seems to be insignificant. It could have been written, “Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit and so empowered and greatly strengthened.” Anyway, as a doctor, Luke did not ignore physical strength. It also supports the factual description of the story of Saul’s conversion.

We thank and praise God for the wonderful grace of Jesus, which is the unfathomable love of God. The grace of Jesus changed Saul forever, forgiving all his sins and calling Saul as his chosen instrument for the evangelization of the Gentiles. This grace of Jesus also reached each of us. May we grow in knowing this grace of Jesus and live as his chosen instruments bearing the campus mission for his name’s sake, for the one who died for us.

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