On the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19)

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To those with biblically trained ears, it is quickly evident that culture at large has (without even realising it) embraced biblical terminology. For example the phrase “by the skin of my teeth” is frequently heard, but most don’t realise that it comes from Job 19:20. Sometimes we hear people described as being “the salt of the earth,” which is lifted from Matthew 5:13. Another often used phrase is, “I had a Damascus Road experience,” or, “I have not had a Damascus Road experience.” Of course, this comes from the story of Paul’s conversion, as recorded by Dr. Luke, in Acts 9.

What happened to this man named Saul, from Tarsus, is one of the most well-known events in the history of the world. It would be akin to Richard Dawkins being converted to Christ. And yet with all due respect, as wonderful as that would be, Dawkins’ conversion would not hold a candle to that of Saul’s, simply because with the conversion of Saul the gospel began to spread to the nations in an otherwise unimaginable way. In fact, if Mr. Dawkins is one day converted, he will have Saul (or Paul) and his Damascus Road experience to thank for it!

The account of Saul’s conversion is so important to the mind of Luke that it is recorded three times in the book of Acts: chapter 9—Luke’s record of the event; chapter 22—Paul’s recollection before an angry mob of Jews to defend his identification with and ministry to the Gentiles; and chapter 26—Paul’s testimony before the Roman officials Festus and Agrippa as he recounts the reason for being arrested in chapter 22. “At the very least one must say that the inclusion of three accounts of Saul’s conversion is an indication of the importance Luke attached to this event.”1

Haenchen, notes, “Luke employs such repetitions only when he considers something to be extraordinarily important and wishes to impress it unforgettably on the reader. That is the case here.”2

But why was this so important? Verse 15 tells us: “He is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before the Gentiles.” In other words, Paul’s conversion was so strategic because of what it resulted in: the knowledge of the glory of the Lord through the gospel amongst the Gentiles (nations).

This account is strategically placed by Luke because of the historical context of this chapter. Again, Longnecker notes, “Luke . . . climaxes his portrayals of three pivotal characters in the advance of the gospel to the Gentile world by an account of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus that emphasizes the supernatural nature of the call and the miraculous circumstances of the conversion.”3

As we recently saw, the gospel in recent chapters was being loosed upon the world in a steady and methodical manner. In some ways, it was happening too slowly! Therefore, the Lord in His providence allowed the persecution of His people in Jerusalem for the purpose of the gospel getting to Samaria and to the uttermost.

Luke records this spread to the uttermost in deliberate steps. First, he tells how Philip went with the gospel to Samaria. Next, he records how Philip preached the gospel to a single Gentile—an African—and assumes in his narrative that the Ethiopian took the gospel back to his country with him. The third step in Luke’s detailing of events is to record the conversion of Saul, who will ultimately take the gospel to “the regions beyond” (2 Corinthians 10:26).

Luke has been recording this story in a remarkably skilled way. In addition to relating the ministry of Philip, he also introduced us to Stephen. Stephen and Philip were both numbered among the Seven. They were both Hellenised Jews, who were appointed by the Jerusalem church to deal with some of the sensitive multicultural issues facing the church. Both of these men had some connection with Saul.

It was Saul who witnessed, approvingly, the stoning of Stephen. There is no doubt that he cast stones along with the rest of the Sanhedrin.

Saul then intensified his persecution, which resulted in the seed-like scattering of the church beyond the borders of Jerusalem and Judea (8:1-5). Saul was thereby used of the Lord to scatter the gospel seed!

One of the sowers, of course, was Philip, who preached the gospel in Samaria and to the Ethiopian gentleman.

I review this simply to help us understand that the record here in Acts 9 of the conversion of Saul is deliberate and strategic. Luke is recording how the Lord’s command of Acts 1:8 came to be fulfilled in history; in fact, how it came to be fulfilled in Luke’s own lifetime (Colossians 1:6, 23).

In this study, we will examine our text while keeping before us the significance of Saul’s conversion. Saul’s Damascus Road experience, humanly speaking, is connected to our own Damascus Road Experience. And while, subjectively speaking, our experience was not (or will not be) like this—a blinding light, an audible voice from heaven, blindness, fasting, miraculous restoration of sight—yet objectively the essentials of Saul’s conversion experience are just like our own. It is because of this that we can look upon our conversion as the writer of Hebrews did, and cry, “How great a salvation!” (Hebrews 2:3).

The three accounts of Saul’s conversion are important also for how they establish that his reception of the gospel was not of man or by man (see Galatians 1, 2). This is important in establishing his apostolic credentials. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Saul’s Background

Acts 9 opens with a reference to “Saul.” Chapter 8 had opened the same way. These allusions to Paul establish the fact that his conversion did not happen in a vacuum, and it was not instantaneous. It came in a context, as does ours. God prepares those whom He saves to receive the gospel.

Saul was uniquely prepared by God for the mission that he would serve. He was from Tarsus of Cilicia. He was of Jewish birth, which established a link to the covenant. At the same time, he enjoyed Roman citizenship by birth, which gave him a great degree of freedom within the culture of his day. He was also Greek educated, which served him well in his mission. See Acts 22:3 and Philippians 3:1-6 for his own testimony on his background.

Perhaps he had encountered Jesus at some point during his years as a Pharisee. We cannot be absolutely certain of this, but it is at least plausible. Here, however, we encounter him as one who was spiritually blind and dead. But, again, once he was spiritually resurrected by the grace of God, his background served him well in ministry.

God takes the initiative in sovereign grace. As is quite clear from what follows, “humanly speaking he was immune to the Christian proclamation and immensely satisfied with his own ancestral faith,”4 and so it was only by God’s sovereign grace that Saul was saved. Likewise, it is only by God’s sovereign grace that anyone is saved. Believer, don’t ever forget your background, and be sure to be grateful that God was sovereignly working in it to save you. At the same time, realise that the Lord has prepared you for salvation at a specific time and for a specific ministry.

Saul’s Brutality

Unbelief is enmity and it expresses itself in different ways. In Saul’s case it manifested itself in the basest brutality.

Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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.

(Acts 9:1-2)

The terminology that is used by Luke in Acts, and also by Paul in his later testimony and writings, portrays his behaviour towards believers at this point in his life as beastly. In Acts 8:3 he is said to have “made havoc” of the church. The term is used to describe ravenous wolves. “Breathing threats and murder” in v. 1 is an allusion, says Alexander, “to the panting or snorting of wild beasts.”5 The phrase “caused havoc” in v. 21 speaks of the mauling of a wild animal. See also 22:1-5 and 26:9-11 where Paul describes his pre-conversion behaviour in similar terms. “Not satisfied with what he had done to terrorize the church in Jerusalem, Saul began to look further afield, with his ferocity unabated.”6

In the light of this behaviour, his conversion is all the more remarkable. As Calvin pointed out, God’s grace is seen, “not only in such a cruel wolf being turned into a sheep, but also in his assuming the character of a shepherd.”7

Incredibly, Saul genuinely believed that he was serving God by his beastly behaviour. He was truly ignorant of the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, in 1 Timothy 1:15-16 he says that he received mercy only because he did act ignorantly. Had he knowingly persecuted Messiah and His followers, he may never have received the mercy that he did!

Saul’s Burden

Our text seems to indicate that Saul, even as he persecuted the church, was under conviction of sin. It appears that his guilt, in fact, fed his brutality.

As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 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.”

(Acts 9:3-5)

I would concur with the view of William Barclay who wrote, “In this passage we have the most famous conversion story in all history. . . . We will see that this is not a sudden conversion; but it is surrender. Something about Stephen lingered in Paul’s mind and would not be banished. How could a bad man die like that? In order to still this insistent doubt Paul plunged into the most violent action possible. . . . He redoubles his efforts and drives himself all the harder to convince himself that he is right and to silence the doubts.”8

In other words, Saul, having been deeply troubled by the conviction and confession made by Stephen at his death, seems to have been trying to assuage his doubts. “Certainly it is not true that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah—or is it? Certainly Jesus of Nazareth, the one that we all saw crucified, could not have risen and ascended to the place reserved for the Son of Man—could He? Certainly I am doing the right thing by securing the extradition of these followers of a false Messiah—or am I? Surely I must be honouring God by silencing these blasphemers who claim that Jesus Christ is Lord?”

“Probably he felt that in light of Israel’s rising messianic hopes the nation must be united and faithful in its obedience to the law and kept from schism or going astray. In his task, he doubtless expected to receive God’s commendation.”9 While he certainly acted “ignorantly,” I am not convinced that it was entirely “doubtless.”

In spite of all of his self-arguments and self-justifications Saul could not silence the doubts. His burden was heavier and louder than all his efforts to cast them off.  “His use of the term ‘Lord’ was probably meant in a worshipful manner—even though he was thoroughly confused as to how he could be rebuked by God for doing the will and service of God.”10

Saul’s Bewilderment

Hearing the audible voice of Christ, Saul responded with utter bewilderment: “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.’ And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (vv. 6-7). According to parallel accounts, those who were with him also heard a voice, but could not understand what it said.

I will remind you that, until now, Saul believed that he was faithfully serving Yahweh. Saul was one of those of whom Jesus prophesied, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 16:2). That was Saul in a nutshell. Listen to his own testimony later before the Jewish Council:

“Brethren and fathers, hear my defence before you now.” And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent. Then he said: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.

(Acts 22:1-4)

In other words, Paul was convinced that he was honouring God when he persecuted the new covenant church. That is also why he could testify that even before he was saved that he served the Lord with a good conscience (Acts 23:1; cf. 2 Timothy 1:3). Saul thought that he was serving God, like zealous men in the Old Testament (e.g. Moses in Numbers 25:1-5; Phineas in Numbers 25:6-15). He thought that, like them, he was protecting the flock of God and the honour of God’s name, but now “Saul was without doubt thoroughly confused. He was not persecuting God! Rather, he was defending God and his laws!”10 How blind could he have been! Jesus of Nazareth, after all, was and is the Messiah, God’s Son! He has risen indeed!

Saul’s Belief

It did not take long for Jesus to break through the wall of Saul’s unbelief. He intended to save Saul, and by His sovereign grace that is just what He did.

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. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”

(Acts 9:8-12)

Barclay notes, “He who had intended to enter Damascus like an avenging fury was led by the hand into that city, blind and helpless as a child.”12

The question is often asked, when was Saul converted? When was he saved? Some are of the opinion that he was converted only after he met Ananias, because the time prior to this was so dark and hungry. I don’t accept that. I believe that Saul was saved when the Lord appeared to him, for his response was much like that of others who come to saving faith in Christ.

How do we know this? Because of the way in which he responded to the voice: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (v. 6). Not all conversions result in instant outward joy. In fact, it is not unusual for one who is converted to go through a time of sorrow due to conviction over past sins. Saul certainly had much to grieve over. He was humbled, no doubt—even humiliated—by his sense of failure. It is small wonder to me that Saul was in this condition. The Lord was confirming to him that he was a new creature indeed and that he would have a lot to learn, and one thing he would need to learn was to lean on the Lord. Nevertheless, though he was in a state of some bewilderment and “shut up in darkness; what soul exercise must have been his portion! But He was secure in the hands of Him, of whom He was soon to testify, ‘He loved Me and gave Himself for Me.’”13

Those who reject the inspiration of Scripture (because they deny the reality of the supernatural) have tried to attribute Saul’s dramatic change in belief to some form of brain-washing. For instance, in a work titled The Battle for the Mind, printed in 1957, William Sargant writes,

After “his acute stage of nervous excitement” came “total collapse, hallucinations and an increased stage of suggestibility,” made more intense by three days of fasting. In this condition new beliefs, exactly contradictory to those he had before, were implanted in him first by Ananias and then by “the necessary period of indoctrination” by the Christians in Damascus.14

There is a better explanation: God in His sovereign grace chased down Saul until he surrendered to the gospel truth revealed in His Son. That is always how anyone comes to faith.

C. S. Lewis testified in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, of his experience of conversion:

Sensing God’s relentless pursuit of him, he likens him to “the great Angler” playing his fish, to a cat chasing a mouse, to a pack of hounds closing in on a fox, and finally to the divine chess player manoeuvring him into the most disadvantageous positions until in the end he concedes “checkmate.”15

In the end Saul did not “‘decide for Christ’,” as we might say. . . . It was rather Christ who decided for him and intervened in his life. God’s grace arrested him, shone into his heart and swept over him like a flood.”16

Consider Paul’s later testimony with reference to conversion. Writing to Timothy of his own conversion experience, he said, “And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:14). He understood that he had not “already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). And speaking more generally of conversion, he wrote to the Corinthians, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Stott notes that God pursues us without violating our responsibility: “Divine grace does not trample on human personality. Rather the reverse, for it enables human beings to be truly human. It is sin which imprisons; it is grace which liberates. The grace of God so frees us from the bondage of our pride, prejudice and self-centredness, as to enable us to repent and believe.”17

It should be noted that we find Saul giving real evidence of a new heart when we learn that he was “praying.” Rather than crying out, “Crucify Him—and them!” he now cried out, “Abba Father.” In the words of Lenski, “the very same mouth, which had been “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” was now breathing out praises and prayers to God. “The raging lion has been changed into a bleating lamb.”17

We should not too quickly bypass this significant biographical account, for prayer finds significant mention in Paul’s writings. The reason, no doubt, was that he had learned early on that he would need to live on his knees if he would fulfil this enormous divinely ordained mission. “If one may conjecture about Paul’s preparation for the overpowering event which changed his life, surely the chief element was prayer.”19

“Instead of judgment and wrath, Grace, infinite and unfathomable Grace, meets him. That Grace, which he was the chosen instrument to proclaim from henceforth in all its unlimited riches, he must taste first of all.”20

Saul’s Brother

In the midst of his account of Saul’s conversion, Luke introduces us to a brother who exercised a most important ministry in Saul’s early new-creature days.

Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in 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 vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptised. So when he had received food, he was strengthened.

(Acts 9:13-19)

A Blessed Introduction

This surely must be one of the tenderest scenes in all of Scripture. It is also a very instructive one for us.

Ananias had every human reason to be fearful of encountering infamous Saul. Like David being pursued by King Saul, Ananias probably feared that he too would receive a spear in the chest if he encountered Pharisee Saul! After all, Saul’s purpose for coming to Damascus was to arrest and extradite Jewish followers of the Way back to a certain execution in Jerusalem. Ananias, therefore, was justified in questioning this command. Except, of course, that the command came from his sovereign and saving Lord! And so Ananias submitted.

When he found Saul, he warmly laid hands on him and greeted him with tender words: “Brother Saul.”

Imagine how Saul must have felt. He was certainly in a vulnerable position. He was in the home of a stranger, blind, and now one of those whom he had come to arrest had laid hands on him! But with the laying on of hands and the warm words of greeting, Saul was embraced into the family of God as signified by the word of this fellow believer and the work of the Holy Spirit (v. 17).

Saul was in the fold and Ananias assured him of this. One commentator notes, “To be counted as a brother in Christ after his attempts to ruin the church must have suffused his soul with astonishment and joy. What a blessed introduction to Christian fellowship! There was no word of reproach for his persecuting activities, only a hearty welcome into the fold.”21

Longnecker has well written, “Ananias greeted him . . . with the fraternal greeting “brother”—believing, it seems, that whoever Jesus had accepted was his brother, whatever he might think about such a person himself, and that all further relationships between them must be built on that basis.”10 There is a wealth of insight and instruction for us in that observation. When someone experiences so great salvation, old things pass away and behold all things become new. Is that perhaps what Paul would later refer to in 1 Corinthians 5:14-17? In other words, the new birth gives to us a completely different perspective towards one another. If this is not our outlook then perhaps we need to examine ourselves to see whether we indeed have had our own Damascus Road experience.

It is significant to note in this context that the account lines up with all that Paul would later record with reference to how he came to believe the gospel (see Galatians 1:1, 11-17). Paul was an eyewitness of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8) and he received his apostleship independently of any of the other apostles. In fact, it would appear that he received the announcement of his apostleship through a Gentile! It is significant that he even received the Holy Spirit through the means of a Gentile. “A new apostle was thus chosen in a Gentile city to be the supreme witness for Christ unto the uttermost part of the Gentile world.”23 And yet his experience was like that of all the other apostles. “He is crucified with Christ, and the three days of darkness are like the three days in the tomb. But on the third day with Christ he rises from the dead in baptism; after that he is filled with the Holy Ghost—his Pentecost.”24

Please be encouraged by this scene that God uses ordinary men to launch great men on their paths of service for Him. Charles Erdman has helpfully noted that “Paul was brought into Christian life and service by the testimony of an obscure disciple named Ananias, and the suggestion is evident that faithful effort may result in the conversion of one whose career may influence generations and races of men.”25

Baptismal Identification

Note that Paul was baptised after receiving the Holy Spirit and upon his sight being restored. There is a lesson here for us: When God opens our eyes to the truth of the gospel concerning His Son, then His indwelling Spirit will compel us to a life of obedience, beginning with repentance and displayed publicly by baptism.

Baptism is no more an option for the believer than repentance and faith. In fact, it is a public confession that we have received repentance and faith. For Paul be baptised was both humbling and humiliating. It was also dangerous. His name would now be added to the list of those who were of the Way. And, as we will soon see, this put him in very real peril. The prophecy that he would suffer many things for the name of Christ (v. 16) was soon to be fulfilled.

Have you been saved by the grace of God? If you have indeed had a Damascus Road experience then you need to complete that experience by openly identifying with the Lord. Those who have experienced so great salvation respond with, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” and one of the first things that He wants you to do is to be baptised.

What about You?

As we conclude our study, let me ask you of your Damascus Road experience. Have you had one? I am not asking if your conversion experience was dramatic. I am asking you if you know in your heart that there is a new dynamic in your life.

Do you know of what it means to respond, “Lord, what will You have me to do?” Do you know what it means to feel the burden of sins lifted? Do you know what it means to be a part of the brotherhood? Do you know what it means to boldly confess the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour?

“We too can (and must) experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, surrender to him in penitence and faith, and receive his summons to service.”14

Show 26 footnotes

  1. Everett. F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 155.
  2. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:367.
  3. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:367.
  4. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:368.
  5. J. A. Alexander, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Minnesota: Klock and Klock Christian Publishers, 1980), ??.
  6. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 155.
  7. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 169.
  8. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 71-72.
  9. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:369.
  10. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:371.
  11. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:371.
  12. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 73.
  13. Arno C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), 176.
  14. Stott, The Message of Acts, 166.
  15. Stott, The Message of Acts, 171.
  16. Stott, The Message of Acts, 168.
  17. Stott, The Message of Acts, 173.
  18. Stott, The Message of Acts, 173.
  19. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:373.
  20. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles, 172.
  21. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 164.
  22. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:371.
  23. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 91.
  24. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 161.
  25. Erdman, The Acts, 88.
  26. Stott, The Message of Acts, 166.