Now we come upon a most pivotal chapter, not only in the book of Acts, but also in the very Word of God Itself. This chapter records for us the conversion of the man Saul, also called Paul. This conversion was very strange, and very different from the experience of any other believer in the Acts period, or for that matter of any believer today. In I Corinthians 15:8, Paul reports of Jesus Christ after His resurrection that “Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” I believe this refers to his conversion, which, though it was entirely different from any other at the time, was fully in harmony with how many both in Israel and throughout the world will come to the Lord at the beginning of the full kingdom of God yet to come. At that time, a great light will enlighten those who are going on in their hatred for God and the Lord Jesus, and cause them to turn to Him. Paul was a pattern of this, one that happened before the due time, when the same thing will happen throughout the world.
This conversion of Saul is recorded three times in the book of Acts, once here in chapter 9 in the words of Luke the narrator, and twice in Acts 22 and 26 in the words of Paul himself, though of course in all three cases the record is given by Divine inspiration. This threefold repetition shows us how critical this event was in the history of Acts. This was indeed a major turning point. How critical it was, and why, we will discuss as we examine this important chapter, and then as we see the work that God commissioned Paul to do in chapter 13.
1. Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
The record of Luke now takes up with Saul where it left off in Acts 8:3. Since then, we have been considering the experiences of the scattered ekklesia of Jerusalem as they went out and proclaimed the Word after the persecution that arose and scattered them all after the death of Stephen. We examined this mostly through the specific example of the man Philip, though the experiences of each one of these may have been quite similar. Now, however, we return to Jerusalem, the center of this all, and the man Saul and the persecution he was stirring up.
We see again that Saul was pretty much the focal point of this persecution. Before Saul came along, the Sanhedrin seemed afraid to move against the disciples for fear of the size and popularity of this movement. Now, however, they had a figurehead, a charismatic leader who could both take their orders and take the blame for what they were too timid to do themselves. Saul was more than willing to accept this role, for his zeal against the disciples, from the death of Stephen, has remained unabated. It is as if with every breath he takes he breathes threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He wanted nothing less than to purge these men and women from the face of the earth. Yet so far, all he has managed to do is to scatter these powerful men far and wide, and they have gone out carrying the gospel of Christ with authority and spreading it in every place they went. This would just have angered Saul more.
Now Saul has been carrying on his persecution in Jerusalem and in the area around it. Yet the word has now spread far beyond this. Word comes to Saul that the word has not only spread all the way north through Samaria and Galilee, but that it has also come to Damascus in Syria, the nation directly to the north of Israel. That the word has spread not only throughout the nation itself but also to colonies of Jews outside the land attracts Saul’s particular attention and anger, and so he goes to his sponsor, the high priest, to seek permission to do something about it.
2. and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Saul asks for letters from the high priest to the synagogues of Damascus. These letters were not to be just pleasant messages of greeting. What Saul wanted were official documents, giving him full authority to carry out his investigations, arrests, and other forms of persecution in that city of Damascus, even as he had in Jerusalem and the areas around it. He wanted to collect these men and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and, no doubt, execution. This permission, as we have noted, the high priest would have been more than willing to give him. The chief priests were happy to see this happen, as long as someone else was doing the dirty work and first in line to take the blame.
Here the Scripture tells us that what Saul was looking for was followers of the Way. This might seem like a strange statement to us, but remember that the name “Christians,” which we seem to use every other word, is almost unknown in Scripture. Other names are much more common. One of the other names used is “any who were of the Way.” If we are to ask, “What Way was this, and why were the believers called that?” I think we need look no further than to the Lord’s statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “The Way” is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and those who were of the Way were those who were of the Lord Jesus.
Notice that Saul was not limiting his persecution to men only. He was ready to arrest women as well, and to bring them back in bonds to Jerusalem. He was indeed an equal opportunity persecutor.
3. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven.
Saul is well on his journey and is nearing Damascus in Syria. Thus, he is outside the land of Israel when this great miracle takes place. This was a fitting place for this man to see the light, who would soon do such a great work for God outside the land of Israel.
Now suddenly as he journeys a light shines around him from heaven. From Paul’s description of this in Acts 22:6, we know that it was about noon when this happened. This is the time when the sun is high in the sky and at its brightest. Yet this light outshines the sun, and thus in comparison with this light, the sun was turned into darkness. This is a foreshadowing indeed of what will happen when God’s kingdom comes in in full, for at that time the light of God that will shine out to the world will indeed outshine the sun, even as Acts 2:20 describes it. At that time it will be true of Israel what the Lord said in Isaiah 60:1-2.
1. Arise, shine;
For your light has come!
And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you.
2. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the LORD will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.
At that time, Israel will receive God’s revelation upon them, even as Saul did. They will receive it while most of them are still outside the land, scattered abroad in dispersion, even as Saul was outside the land at this point. They will receive it even while most of them are still in rebellion and unbelief, even as Saul was. This is indeed a pattern event, similar in many details to what will happen at that great time in the future.
This light came from the heaven, which in this case clearly means the sky. Yet at the same time we cannot doubt what the source of this light was, and we can say that this light came from the One called Heaven, the Ruler of all that is. He was the source of that light, though its direction may have been from the sky.
4. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
The appearance of this light must have been disturbing and terrifying, and Saul falls to the ground when it shines upon him. Now, lying in his fright in the dust of the road, he hears a voice speaking to him. This voice calls to him not in anger, but rather in deep concern. Twice his name is repeated, “Saul, Saul.” In Luke 10:41, the Lord speaks to Martha in her fretting over the work to be done and the lack of help from her sister, “Martha, Martha.” In Luke 22:31, the Lord spoke to Peter in concern over Satan’s request to him when the Lord was arrested, “Simon, Simon.” In Matthew 23:37, the Lord spoke in concern over the city He loves, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” This repetition of a name is always spoken in warning and concern. So the Lord is concerned over this one Saul, who was walking so far from where the Lord wished him to walk and so contrary to what the Lord wanted him to do.
The word “Saul” here is the Hebrew form of the word, Saoul, rather than Saulos, the Greek form of the word usually used in the New Testament. Thus, the Lord was probably speaking to Saul in Hebrew.
Now the Lord continues, “Why are you persecuting Me?” Again, there almost seems to be a note of disappointment, as if He was speaking to a dear friend who had unexpectedly let Him down. The Lord does not approach Saul as an enemy, but rather as a sheep that has gone astray. Whether or not Saul will respond as a wayward sheep remains to be seen in the following verses.
5. And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
There is no doubt but that Saul recognizes the One Who is speaking to him as Yahweh Himself. What he saw was far too similar to what had happened to some of the prophets in the Old Testament for him to fail to recognize it. Yet the words that Yahweh has spoken to him have thrown him into confusion. What does Yahweh mean, he has been persecuting Him? In his mind, he has been persecuting the pretender, Jesus of Nazareth, the man who was leading his nation and people astray. He has been unswerving in his zeal for this cause. How, then, can Yahweh claim he is persecuting Him? Who, then, is Yahweh? For Saul suddenly has the sinking feeling that perhaps the Lord he serves is not Who he always thought that He is at all.
Many people have a picture of God in their minds that they have formulated as to Who He is and what He is like. This picture is derived from various sources, including their reasoning about God, the traditions of others that have been passed down to them, and the experiences they have gone through. Unfortunately, these pictures are often highly inaccurate in depicting Who and what God truly is. Just as Saul had a picture of Yahweh that was entirely wrong, so many do today. The only real source for information about God is the Word of God, the Bible. Any other source is unreliable. We must make certain that all our ideas about God are derived from the Word. Otherwise we, like Saul, might someday find that God is not Who we thought He was at all.
Otis Q. Sellers points out that this was the exact moment in his life that Paul was talking about in Galatians 1:15-16, where he writes, “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, 16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood.” Yes, God revealed His Son in Paul. He turned one who was formerly dead set against the truth to a true understanding of Jesus Christ by this miraculous intervention. In the same way, there will come a time when the Lord will be revealed to all Israel in this way, even in the time Isaiah 60 is talking about. At that time, Israel will ask the same question Saul did here, “Who are You, Lord?” And they will receive His reply. They will learn that the one who is dealing with them is the same, historical Jesus Whom many of them have rejected and despised.
The Lord tells Saul that he is kicking against the goads, and that this is a hard thing to do. A goad is a sharp pointed instrument used for prodding the animal onward. To kick against the goad would only embed the sharp point deeply within the animal’s leg or foot, which would hurt the animal as much as the goad. Saul is kicking against God’s goads, but he is only hurting himself. The Lord is now going to teach him better.
In some manuscripts, the words “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” do not occur here. However, since these words are in Acts 26:14, where they are not questioned, we can be confident that they are accurate, and that the Lord did speak them. We would tend to think that they do in fact belong here, though some might argue that a busybody scribe added them in here from Acts 26. The question, then, would be why he did not add other details from that passage that he could have added.
6. So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
As we can well imagine, Saul is afraid at this revelation of Who Yahweh truly is. He in a moment realizes that he has been deceived, and all the terrible acts he has done against those who believe in Christ have been crimes against the true God. No wonder he trembled and was astonished! The basis for his life up until this time has suddenly been destroyed, or at least greatly altered.
Now, it is time for Saul to decide how to respond. If he was like some of his religious companions, who despised the Lord Jesus even when they realized the truth about Him, he would have continued to respond in hatred and revolt. Thank the Lord, this is not what happened. Saul responded with true submission. If the Lord Jesus was in truth Yahweh, then Saul would serve Him. And so he asked what He wanted him to do? This was the right question, and the right attitude. From now on, this man Saul has changed sides. From now on, his single-minded zeal will be turned to serving the Lord, rather than opposing Him.
The Lord’s response tells Saul what he must do. The answer was plain and straightforward, and it did not even alter Saul’s destination, although his actions once he arrived in Damascus would be far different than he had planned prior to this event. In our day, the Lord does not answer such a question as this plainly. Many when they realize the truth about God ask then what they should do. The answer, however, is not so forthcoming. They need to turn to the Word of God, and learn from careful and painstaking study what exactly they need to do to please and serve Him. However, most settle for jumping onboard the first church they come to, and doing a lot of religious acts that even men of the world think are the things those who have decided to serve God are supposed to do. Thus, the average new believer ends up muddled and confused, and whether or not they will ever learn what exactly it is God wants them to do is highly in question.
Someday, when God reveals Himself to Israel at His manifestation (apokalupsin,) even His kingdom, they will likewise ask Him what He would have them to do. The answer will be to take a journey to meet with God in preparation for returning to their land. God will have a mission for them, and it will be a glorious one indeed. But they must wait to be told what that mission will be.
Again, Saul’s question at the beginning of this verse is not in some manuscripts. One could find a similar question in Acts 22:9, though there is no mention of the truth that he trembled and was astonished. Again, one could imagine that this was added in from that verse, but I think it most likely that it does in fact belong in this place.
7. And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.
These men who traveled with Saul, probably some of his companions and friends who had joined him in carrying out his persecution of believers, are also affected by this great event. They do not see the Lord, as Saul did, but they hear a voice while seeing no one. This strikes them dumb so that they cannot speak. This reminds us of Daniel’s companions in Daniel 10:7, where he tells us, “And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision; but a great terror fell upon them, so that they fled to hide themselves.” Like Daniel’s vision, this vision was meant for Saul alone. Yet the mighty presence of the Lord Jesus affected those with him, even though they could not see Him themselves.
8. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
The vision is over, and Saul has received his instructions. Now, he arises from the ground to carry them out. When he opens his eyes, however, he sees no one. As he himself says in Acts 22:11, “I could not see for the glory of that light.” The great light that had shown upon him had blinded him to all other lights. Now, for Saul, that light was the only light, and all else had become darkness.
His companions were not blinded, however, and so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. We have to wonder what Saul told them of his vision, or of how his intentions had changed now that he knew how wrong he was. This is the last we see of these men. It could be that they listened to Saul, and became some of his first converts to the Lord Jesus Christ. It could be that they continued in their desire to persecute believers, but now that their leader was compromised, they merely returned to Jerusalem. At any rate, what happened to them is unimportant. What is important now is what happened to Saul after this.
9. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
So Saul now continues for three days without sight. During this time he eats no food and drinks no water. His thoughts are totally focused on the Lord he has now met and the One he has now offered to obey.
Otis Q. Sellers in discussing this passage in his audio message on Acts 9 references a very interesting passage in the book of Hosea. There we read, in Hosea 6:1-3:
1. Come, and let us return to the LORD;
For He has torn, but He will heal us;
He has stricken, but He will bind us up.
2. After two days He will revive us;
On the third day He will raise us up,
That we may live in His sight.
3. Let us know,
Let us pursue the knowledge of the LORD.
His going forth is established as the morning;
He will come to us like the rain,
Like the latter and former rain to the earth.
In this passage, we read of a time when Israel will return to God. This will happen when God reveals Himself to them, as we saw in Isaiah 60:1-2. At that time, they choose to trust in the LORD, that He will heal them and bind them up. At this time and for these people, all earthly things will seem to fade away in the glory of the light they now see from God. They too will be blind to all but the light that they now see. Because of this, they will willingly leave their homes and the countries they were born in and go to meet the Lord at the place that He will choose. This is set forth in Ezekiel 20:34-36, which reads:
34. “I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out. 35. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will plead My case with you face to face. 36. Just as I pleaded My case with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will plead My case with you,” says the Lord GOD.
When the Lord meets with Israel and pleads His case before them, then they will see that the historical Jesus Christ, the One they rejected all these years and despised, He is the One Who is acting to save them. This will cause a great period of national mourning for the nation of Israel, as they bemoan the truth of how they have rejected the One God sent to save them. Yet after three days, Israel will be revived and raised up. After three days the Lord will accept them, and they will live in His sight.
I believe that all this is foreshadowed in the experience of Saul. He was a pattern of all that shall befall Israel in that time to come.