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From Saul to Paul

AN EXPOSITION OF ACTS 9:1-20

     1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,

Saul had been engaged before in persecuting Christians, and he continued to persecute them. There are people who find pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering on others. There is a sense of empowerment. There is a particular lust of the flesh which is sadistic. Sadistic behaviour is well known in serial killers. However, there are degrees of sadistic behavior, and more than enough can be found in the church. The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition testify to religious sadism.

The word for breathing out is an expressive word of deep, agitating emotion. When people are angry they breathe rapidly and violently. Saul was filled with self-righteous, angry passion, against the disciples of the Lord. His anger motived him to go to the High Priest.

  2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.

What Saul wanted was official authority to hurt others. Many times evil tries to cover the pain and suffering it inflicts on others. What Saul had in mind was to arrest Christians in the synagogues in Damascus, men or women, bind them as if they were criminals, and bring them to Jerusalem for an ecclesiastical hearing. Perhaps they could be charged with crimes against the state, and be declared enemies of Rome. This would guarantee a death penalty from Rome. The Jews had no power to officially execute anyone without Rome’s approval.

There is an objective in people who hate Christians. That objective is to slaughter them, in order to silence the voice of the church permanently.

The ungodly cannot bear to hear the voice of the Lord saying through His church, “Repent!” “Prepare to meet thy God!” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” “Jesus is the only name given under heaven whereby we must be saved!” “Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!” “There is a Moral Law!” “Flee from the wrath to come!”

Saul did not want to hear the gospel. He was determined to silence the voice of any of The Way he might find in the synagogues in Damascus.

Damascus was the ancient capital of Syria, located 120 miles NE of Jerusalem. To the city of Damascus, Saul began his journey. No distance was too great for him to travel to find Christians with a view to their slaughter. There are misguided religious zealots who thrive on what they do.

3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

Saul received the letters he sought from the Sanhedrin because the world, the flesh, and the Devil, are united in a collective hostility to Christians. Theophilus, son of Ananus, was the High Priest who signed the arrest warrants Saul sought. He had been appointed High Priest at the Feast of Pentecost, AD 37 by Vitellius, the Roman governor. His brother Jonathan had been removed from the office that same year.

The High Priest Theophilus, lives forever in infamy in the Book of Works the Lord keeps in heaven, for Theophilus agreed to hurt the church. God will not forget. One day, according to the Revelation, books will be opened, and those still dead in trespasses and sin shall be judged “according to their works”. Theophilus shall be cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the Second Death (Rev. 20:12, 14). God will not be mocked. Neither will the Lord allow His saints to go unavenged.

As Saul neared the city of Damascus, suddenly a blinding light flashed around him. The God of Glory had come again to earth. God was accustomed to appearing to His people in a cloud, in a pillar of smoke, in a pillar of fire, and in the Shechinah. Let the people of God shout, “Glory! Glory! Glory!” Moses once told Israel, “In the morning ye shall see the glory of the Lord (Ex. 16:7).

The question comes. “Have you personally seen the glory of God in your life?”

In the transfiguration, Jesus had been encompassed with the light of glory (Matt. 17:1-5). The Lord had spoken of His glory to come (John 17:5). In this moment, the Shechinah reappeared as the Son of God invested with appropriate glory to convince His arch enemy that He was the Messiah.

4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

The blast of light caused Saul to fall to the ground. Then he heard a voice calling His name. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Notice three gospel truths. First, in the day of divine visitation, God comes suddenly. A person never knows what day or hour the Lord might come in judgment, in discipline, or in grace and mercy. Second, the Lord knows our name. The knowledge of God is astonishing. He who can call the countless trillions of stars by name, knows every single person. That can be both comforting and terrifying. To be known by God as an object of grace is a lovely thought. To be known by God as an object of His wrath is a terrifying reality. Atheist, hate God if you dare, deny him if you are so foolish, but, Stephen Hawking, God knows your name. Child of mercy, God knows your name too, and one day He will call you to Himself. Third, notice the Lord identifies with His church. For Saul to persecute people of The Way, is for Saul to persecute Christ Himself. There is a bond the Lord has with His people that can never be broken.

5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

The question Saul asked is both penetrating, and comically self-serving. The question is a bit comical and self-serving because Saul immediately calls the personage, “Lord”, indicating Saul knew intuitively who was speaking to Him, and in whose presence he now bowed. Saul might not have initially bowed in reverence, but he did bow his knee in forced acknowledgment to the Lordship of Christ. Later, Paul will remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, and write to the Romans, “For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Rom. 14:11).

The question is penetrating, because it opens the door to knowledge. “Who art thou, Lord?” is a worthwhile inquiry. Those who have honestly asked a religious question in an authentic quest have been rewarded with the truth. “And the Lord said, I am Jesus who thou persecutest.”

“Saul, do you really want to know who I am? I am the One you hate. I am the One you tried to kill. I am the One who lives. I am the Resurrection and the Life. I am the One you are persecuting.”

Then, Jesus went on to make a statement. “Saul, it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” The word translated “pricks”, kentron, refers to any sharp point which will pierce or perforate, much like the sting of a bee. The proverbial expression was well known in the ancient world. It was used by the Greek tragedy writer Euripides (484 – 406 BC), and others, which is interesting. Not only does the Lord know our name, He knows our language and colloquialisms. A person has to smile at the thought of the Lord using slang language.

6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

What astonished Saul? Was it the Shekinah glory? Was it the fact that he heard a heavenly voice? Was it the fact that the Lord knew His name? Was it the Lord’s use of a proverbial expression? Was it the fact that Jesus was alive? No doubt, it was a combination of all of this, and more. What is certain is that Saul was suddenly a changed man.

Theologians have spent centuries debating the ordo salutis, or the order of salvation. There is no consensus, but a strong Biblical argument can be made that regeneration precedes faith.

There is the promise of the prophet Ezekiel. “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezek. 36:25-27).

There is the statement of Jesus. “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).

Because a person has been regenerated, or made alive by the Holy Spirit, the soul can respond in faith to Christ with a view to gospel obedience, which is why we read that Saul said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” The first time Saul used the term, Lord, it was an inquiry. The second time Saul used the term was in faith, with a desire to do God’s will.

“Regeneration is the fountain; sanctification is the river” (J. Sidlow Baxter).The agency of regeneration is the Holy Spirit. The instrument of saving faith is the Word of God. Souls are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:23).

“No sooner is the soul quickened, than it at once discovers its lost estate, is horrified thereat, looks for a refuge, and believing Christ to be a suitable one, flies to him and reposes in him” (Charles H. Spurgeon).

“Faith in the living God and his Son Jesus Christ is always the result of the new birth, and can never exist except in the regenerate. Whoever has faith is a saved man” (C.H. Spurgeon).

I trust you will understand, and value the ordo salutis, the order of salvation in order to take away human boasting or to think that you did something in order to be saved. Salvation is of the Lord. The Lord comes to us suddenly. He calls our name. He regenerates us by the Holy Spirit. He gives us the gift of faith. We hear. Our heart lives. We bow before the Lord’s sovereignty. We arise to move in gospel obedience to do His will.

    9:6. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

When a person desires to do the will of the Lord, by degrees the Lord will make His will known. What Saul had to do was to continue to the city of Damascus and wait until he was told what to do next. To his credit, Saul did not complain that the will of God was not sufficiently revealed. Saul obeyed the heavenly vision because he was a new man. His will was no longer his own. His time was no longer his own. His objectives in life were no longer his own. All that changed in a flash of spiritual light.

     7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

While the names of Saul’s fellow conspirators in religious hatred go unnamed, they are known to God. Though they remained silent throughout this ordeal, their silence speaks volumes. Consider the following truths.

First, the reason why the men which journeyed with Saul did not hear the voice of the Lord is because only the sheep can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Behold the goodness, and the severity of God. God is under no obligation to save anyone. That He in mercy saves some is a testimony to His amazing grace. That God does not save everyone is a testimony to His sovereignty. He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He wills, He hardens. The same sun which melts the butter, hardens the clay. The same gospel which melts the stubborn heart of Saul, hardened those who travelled with him.

Second, the men who journeyed with Saul did not hear the voice of God. The men with Saul could only stand in amazing at the bright light they saw, and Saul bowed low on the ground. They did not understand what was happening. While there is a general call of the gospel through open preaching, there is an inner call of the gospel to the elect. As a chosen vessel of God, Saul heard the voice of God, while others did not.

The natural man does not want to hear the call of God. If he did hear God call he would not be able to understand the things he heard. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

Third, those who travelled with Saul continued with him into Damascus. While their mission remained the same, as far as finding Christians to arrest, Saul’s mission had changed. The lesson is that the world continues to live physically, while being dead spiritually. Those who travelled with Saul lived life according to their will and wisdom, not knowing they were dead men walking. They would continue to hurt themselves, while trying to hurt Christ and His church.

8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

It can only be conjectured why Saul went for three days and did not eat or drink. Perhaps he was alarmed over his blindness, and was worried that he might never see again. Perhaps he was convicted over his life of religious sin. Sin desensitizes the soul.

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

Alexander Pope

Grace restores reason. With reason comes repentance, which in turn comes with a new heart of flesh that quivers at what it has done against God and others.

It is also possible that Saul was engaging in two simple acts of Christian discipline, meditation and fasting. Jesus said to His disciples, “I have food to eat of that you are not familiar with” (John 4:32).

10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.

While Saul was resting, thinking, and fasting, God was moving to meet with His servant Ananias.

11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,

Sometimes God speaks directly to the heart of His servants. This was such a moment. Ananias was given specific instruction. He was to go to the street called Straight, and knock on the door of the house of Judas. He was to ask for Saul of Tarsus whom the Lord knew was praying. Prayer is another Christian discipline in addition to meditation and fasting. Saul had been uttering religious prayers all of his life, but now, he was praying. He was talking to the risen Lord whom he had seen. Saul was also doing something else. He was considering a vision he had been given during his three days of blindness. A vision is an exalted picture of spiritual reality while a person is awake. In this, it differs from a dream. The word vision means to perceive, or to see.

Balaam speaks of himself as having seen “the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:16). In the time of Eli it is said, “And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent” (1 Sam. 3:1), meaning, there was no public and recognized revelation of the divine will. The Bible says, Where there is no vision, the people perish, because they are unrestrained (Prov. 29:18). Saul had a vision.

  12 And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.

The Lord told Ananias what Saul had seen in his vision. Saul had seen none other than Ananias coming, putting his hand on him, and having his sight restored. What a joy the vision must have been to Saul. He might have thought he would be blind for the rest of his life, but God had mercy upon him. God’s usual way of blessing His people is to give them mercy upon mercy.

13 Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:

What brought joy to Saul did not bring joy to the heart of Ananias, it brought alarm. Ananias understood the implications of what the Lord was telling him. He was the man in Saul’s vision who was to lay hands on him and restore his sight. That was something Ananias did not want to do. A blind enemy is not as dangerous as an enemy with sight. A blind enemy loses some advantage over those whom he wants to hurt. Ananias did not want to restore sight to Saul, nor did he want to touch Saul. The Lord had to teach Ananias something in this moment. The spiritual lesson is simple. “Ananias, do not build your happiness on the unhappiness of someone else.”

     14 And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.

Ananias already knew something about Saul because of his reputation. He had heard how Saul had done many evil things to the saints in Jerusalem. Now, the rumor was that Saul had authority, here, in Damascus, from the chief priests, to arrest all that call on the name of the Lord.

My, how the Lord is patient with Christians. Ananias is not telling the Lord something He did not know. What Ananias was trying to do was persuade the Lord to change His plan to conform to the fears of Ananias. It was not going to happen. Once the decretive will of God has been established, it will certainly come to pass.

15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:

The Lord listened to Ananias. The Lord understood the fears of His saint. The main problem was that Ananias did not understand the faithfulness and power of God. He was weak in the faith in these areas. That would soon change. The Lord said to Ananias, “Go thy way”, and Ananias said, “Yes, Lord.” He submitted to the Sovereign.

To encourage the heart of Ananias, the Lord did inform him of something remarkable. Saul was a chosen vessel. He was foreordained to bear the name of Jesus to the Gentiles. Saul would preach before kings, and also before the children of Israel.

That was an amazing announcement. “Ananias, Saul of Tarsus, is now on our side, and I want you to be an instrument in bringing him along.”

The only reason Saul of Tarsus came to faith in the sovereign Saviour was because he was the object of electing love. John Newton understood the grace of God and wrote,

“T’was grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed”.

     16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my names sake.

There was something else which the Lord told Ananias about Saul. He would suffer great things for the Saviour. Ananias might have asked, “Lord, why must Saul suffer great things?” Part of the answer to that question might be found in the concept of retributive justice. He who had hurt the church so much, should suffer much.

President Abraham Lincoln approached the concept of retributive justice during his second inaugural address. On Saturday, March 4, 1865, President Lincoln addressed the large crowd before saying, in part, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Saul must suffer. Saul did suffer.

The Sufferings of Saul
2 Corinthians 11:25-33

     25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;

26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;

27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.

28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.

29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?

30 If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.

31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.

32 In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me:

33 And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.

In his sufferings, Saul learned many spiritual truths, the most important being that the grace of God is sufficient for every need. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.

Ananias did as he was told. He went his way. The way of Ananias is the way of obedience. Ananias entered into the home of Judas, he found Saul of Tarsus, he laid hands on him, and he spoke to Saul the first words of grace he heard from the lips of another Christian as a Christian. Ananias said, “Brother Saul.” He did just say, “Saul.” He called him Brother Saul. Perhaps some tears came to the eyes of Saul for we know he could weep. Like the Lord, Saul would weep often. Perhaps, in his final moments of darkness, he heard his name being said, “Brother Saul. The Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

18 And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. 19 And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus

With the words of Ananias being spoken the promise of God was fulfilled. Saul immediately saw, he received his sight, he arose, and he was baptized. After that, Saul stayed for several days with the disciples which were at Damascus. Then he did something amazing. He began to proclaim the name of Jesus in Jewish synagogues. In the story of Saul, who became Paul, is the story of redeeming grace.

20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.

What Happens When a Person Becomes a Christian?

  • The Christian is to be no longer self-willed, but humble.                 Acts 9:8
  • The Christian engages in spiritual acts of discipline.                          Acts 9:9
  • The Christian begins to pray.                                                                            Acts 9:11
  • The Christian stops doing evil things.                                                          Acts 9:13
  • The Christian stops making others afraid.                                                Acts 9:14
  • The Christian learns he is a chosen vessel.                                               Acts 9:15
  • The Christian enters into the sufferings of Christ.                              Acts 9:16
  • The Christian receives the filling of the Holy Spirit.                           Acts 9:17
  • The Christian is given spiritual sight, and insight.                                Acts 9:18
  • The Christian is baptized.                                                                                   Acts 9:18
  • The Christian is strengthened.                                                                        Acts 9:19
  • The Christian enjoys fellowship in the body of Christ.                     Acts 9:19
  • The Christian becomes a witness for Christ.                                          Acts 9:20
  • The Christian receives spiritual understanding about Christ.     Acts 9:20

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