We begin chapter nine with the conversion of Saul (interchanged with the name Paul). Saul is on his way to Damascus to ask for letters from the high priest to continue his threats and murder against Disciples of the Lord. “Damascus is a large city in Syria, northeast of Jerusalem, it is strategically located and has been an important city from the most ancient times (see Gen. 14:15; 15:2) until today.”[i] Saul’s desire was to bring those who were of “the way,” bound into Jerusalem. On his way to Damascus, a bright light from heaven flashed around him. Saul fell to the ground. He heard a voice saying to him, “Saul Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” To clarify, “Since Saul does not yet know the identity of the speaker, ‘Lord’ is here used in the conventional sense of ‘Sir.’”[ii] The reply was, “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.” At this point, Saul did not say anything else. The men around him stood speechless. They heard the voice, but they did not see anyone. “Though the other members of Paul’s party participate in the transcendent experience, they do not become Christian. All attention is focused on Paul.”[iii]
The Lord instructed him to get up and go into the city, and he would be instructed what to do. This is a key phrase, according to Boring and Craddock, in that “It is not directly from heaven that Saul receives the content of the gospel or what he should do to become a Christian. This will be communicated to him in a way that Luke considered ‘standard’ by the church’s own messengers.” Consequently, “God is at work in the conversion process, but those who are converted do not receive instructions directly from heaven or from their inner experiences. God uses human agents to communicate the gospel and to guide people into a Christian way.”[iv] Saul got up from the ground. His eyes were open, but he could not see. They led him by hand into Damascus. For three days, he was without sight, and did not eat or drink.
Meanwhile, the focus turned to a Disciple named Ananias. ”Ananias is the agent of the church’s evangelistic mission that brings Saul into the Christian Community.”[v] The Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision. When the Lord spoke to him, he responded, “Here I am Lord.” The Lord gave him instruction to go to the street called straight at the house of Judas and look for a man named Saul of Tarsus. The Lord informed Ananias that Saul was praying at that moment of him, a man named Ananias, that would come and lay hands on him so that he could receive his sight.
Ananias responded that he had heard about a man named Saul, and the evil he had done to the saints in Jerusalem. And how he has the authority to bind all who invoked the name of the Lord in Damascus. But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and Kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” We must take note, that “God chose Saul, not vice versa (see John 15:16). The story is about God, not about Saul. The whole story is not about Saul’s successful quest for God, but about the grace of God that transforms a persecutor into a missionary.” Let’s not admire Saul, but let’s rejoice that we belong to a church empowered by God.
Ananias shows up at the house where Saul is staying. He laid hands on Saul. When he laid hands on him, something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Scales can be symbolic for conversion. Saul was baptized, ate some food, and regained his strength. According to Boring and Craddock, Saul was not converted from one religion to another, from unbelief to belief, from insincerity to sincerity, or from not believing in a Messiah to believing in a Messiah. “As a Jewish Pharisee, he already believed that God would send the Messiah to fulfill the divine plan and bring in the kingdom of God. His conversion consisted of “The one life-transforming change – that he came to believe that God had sent the Messiah, and his name was Jesus of Nazareth.”[vi] In addition, “When he encounters the risen Christ, Paul is not searching, consciously or unconsciously, for God, but is pursuing what he confidently assumes to be God’s will.”[vii]
Saul was with the Disciples for several days, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogue, saying, He is the son of God. Can you imagine the reaction of the people hearing him proclaim Jesus, the one he opposed? Some said, “Is this not the man who made havoc in Jerusalem for the purpose of bringing them bound before the Chief Priests.” Saul became powerful and confounded the Jews proving that Jesus was the Messiah. “The issue for Christian faith is not whether there is a god in general, but whether God is the one who has acted decisively in the Christ event to disclose the nature of divine reality and to restore humanity to himself – ‘proving’ is literally bringing together.”[viii]
The Jews plotted to kill Saul; however, the Disciples lowered him in a basket by night over the city wall. “Critical scholars might be tempted to regard this colorful detail as a legendary accretion if it were not confirmed by Paul’s own perspective (1 Cor. 10-17). Such phenomena show that Acts is not fiction and should provide a brake on scholarly skepticism.”[ix]
When Saul returned to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the other Disciples. They were afraid of him, as they did not believe he had been converted to a Disciple. Barnabas took him to the Apostles and explained what happened on the Damascus Road, and how he proclaimed with boldness in the name of the Lord. After this, Saul began to move in and out with the Apostles, boldly proclaiming the Lord. He argued with the Hellenists; they wanted to kill him. The Disciples brought him to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus. Meanwhile, the church began to experience peace in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Living in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers.
In this chapter, we also read of Peter in the cities of Lydda and Joppa, healing Aeneas and raising Tabitha (which in Greek is Dorcas), from the dead. “The two miracle stories reintroduce Peter and prepare for his role in bringing Gentiles into the church.”[x] The news of these healings, spread throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. The stage is set for Peter’s encounter with Cornelius.
Prayer: Dear God, we thank you for the reading of Saul’s conversion experience. Sometimes our eyes are open, yet we are not able to see. Our relationship with you takes time. Time to nurture, to trust you, to trust others to guide us along the way, and to experience who you are and desire to be in our lives, for the good of the church. We pray that each of us will have our own Damascus Road experience. Help us to embrace the love and intimacy that flows out of a relationship with you. Amen.
[i] Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, pg. 397.
[v] Ibid., pg. 398
[vi] Ibid. pg. 397
[vii] Ibid. pg. 397.
[viii] Ibid., pg. 399.
[x] Ibid, pg. 400.