The Conversion, Rather Than Condemnation

Acts 9:1-19

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and 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?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.” And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they 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 the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Behold, here am I, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.

It’s so simple to summarize: God says something, the person to whom God speaks questions God, God says “go” and they go. That, and immediately immersed, Saul was baptized. They certainly were in a big hurry to get wet back then. Perhaps we are the ones who are in no hurry and that reflects on our spiritual condition in the United States. Yet I have overlooked the most glaring facet of Luke’s summary of Saul.

The focus is now off of Philip and on Saul, aka, Paul–as we have seen, this is how Luke writes. He now zooms in on Saul, whom we have seen at the stoning of Stephan. He is a young man and a prominent persecutor of the people of Jesus. Luke confirms this with his statement, “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

We remember to use the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics to unlock the CAGED Scripture ,which has been caged by our preconceived notions and presuppositions–context, aspirations of the author, genre, expository exegesis of examples and divide rightly the word of truth. What was Luke’s aspiration by writing, “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord?” What is essential for life? How did God impart life into man? What does the “p” in the lifesaving effort of CPR stand for? Is the Spirit called the breath of God? We do it thousands of times a day but rarely think about it unless we have a respiratory infection but breathing is life. According to Luke, Saul lived to persecute Christians. And persecute he did. He even convinced the council and had the high priest give him letters, permitting him to pull the people back to Jerusalem, from whence they had fled. The Greek is even more emphatic than our English translation. When we read that Saul “breathed” threats to the church, we think of exhaling, as if he were speaking threats, as he breathed out, while he spoke. But the Greek indicates inhaling, as if to say, Saul breathed in threats to the church. Though short and shameful, Luke’s aspiration to his audience is exclaimed–Saul lived to persecute Christians, it’s what motivated him. Like oxygen to our lungs, persecution was Saul’s primary purpose. And he was good at it, rallying around the Law, he convinced the high  priest to give him free reign to snatch up all the followers of Jesus. He held letters from the high priest in his pocket permitting him to persecute.

“And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?'”

Saul was about to enter the oldest remaining city in recorded history, but before he did, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” We live in the best of times, we can quickly do an Expository exegesis of examples, reading how Paul described the situation. “I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me.” He said this during his second defense, and during his first defense he testified, “And it came about that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me.” Was it like lightning sans thunder? Or like a strobe light, pulsating intensely? We don’t know exactly but we do know that it was midday and it flashed, was brighter than the sun and it caused Saul to consider its source.

According to the creation account, light came first. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” The Bible is replete with the imagery of light being good. Jesus said, “And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men have loved darkness rather than light; for their works were evil.” There is certainly symbolism in the flashing of bright light. Jesus is showing Saul some significant substance. Without getting too deep or bogged down, consider darkness. Consider clouds. The Lord has previously presented, and predicted, himself coming in clouds. His presence is manifested by smoke, clouds, thunder but to Saul, Jesus chose light. Lord willing we will see this develop more in Acts 22 and Acts 26-27, it should be very illuminating.

“’Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.'” We must see, must understand, that Saul believed to be not only on the side of God, but called by God to eradicate the “Way.” The Way, stood in the way of their true religion. They were at odds and were incompatible. Saul promoted the strict interpretation of the Law of Moses while the way proclaimed the promise of the Law and prophets, Jesus–the forgiveness of sins. The crucifixion of Christ was the foundation for the Way. To Saul, Jesus was nothing but a heretical human, who stood in the way of his religion. Far from being God, in Paul’s mind and uncircumcised heart, Jesus was a sinner a transgressor of the Law of Moses, which is quite ironic because Jesus gave the Law and even expounded on it during his earthly tabernacle. And far from being saints, his followers were desolate degenerates, deserving death.

But notice that Jesus did not come to Saul in judgment or condemnation but in light, with words of wisdom and wonder. “Why are you persecuting me?” We are reminded of Matthew 24. “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name.” We also remember Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

I think of how easy we have it in the United States. My heart goes out to all the persecuted people around the world. I hurt with you, yet rejoice over your testimony, for you are like the prophets of old. You are not persecuted because of you, but because of Jesus. Jesus was clear in Matthew and extremely emphatic in Acts 9 to the super-sinner Saul; “why are you persecuting me?” The irony of ironies is that Saul didn’t know who he was persecuting, either directly or indirectly. Saul persecuted the people of Jesus, being the body of Christ therefore, he was persecuting Jesus directly. But Saul didn’t know who he was when he first spoke. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked because he didn’t know. Saul didn’t believe that he was persecuting anyone but lawfully rounding up rebels. In the heart and mind of Saul, he was doing God’s work, which he inhaled, by silencing these sinners. What a shock it must have been, beyond the bright light, or a voice from heaven, when Saul heard these words; “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.”

Everything Saul believed, everything he breathed in, was crushed by the statement, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.” Saul would later write; “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

I am not saying this, I am reading this: “look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Who is true Israel? Who is the true circumcision? The good news, Jesus didn’t condemn Paul, he converted him. We will come back to this.

“And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” While there were witnesses, the message was for Saul. His traveling companions heard it, but didn’t get the message. The message at this time was for one man, Saul. Saul lost his sight. Jesus called the name of Saul, Saul was guided to the city, by his hand and Saul fasted for three days. The Savior singled out Saul.

“Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Behold, here am I, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.'”

Not ironically, Ananias is the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Hannaniah; “God’s Favor.” God is showing his grace to Saul, Mr. Law of Moses, through a man whose name essentially means, “grace.” I love it! Yet Ananias had his doubts. He responded well at first. God called his name and like the prophets before him, Isaiah especially, he responded; “Behold, here am I, Lord.” Yet we all have a little Moses in us, don’t we? “Here am I Lord…sen Aaron.” Jesus was very specific with Ananias. He told him that Saul would be expecting him specifically–he although blind at the moment, had a vision about Ananias. But there is always a but–we push back against God using our better judgment.

“But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Your name.'” There is nothing untrue in what Ananias said. The problem is his attitude of apprehension. Like Moses, he questioned the wisdom and workings of the Lord. But God is good, unlike us, he is graceful towards Saul and Ananias. At this point, I would expect the Lord to respond with something more sarcastic. I would envision the following exchange:

Jesus: “Ananias.”

Ananias: “Behold, here am I, Lord.”

Jesus: “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.”

Ananias: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Your name.”

Jesus: “Did I stutter?”

“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.’” We live in the best of times because we can see that prophecy is true, with a few clicks of a mouse or touchscreen. Jesus, who was persecuted by Saul, says Saul will also suffer for his name. Therefore we fast-forward to what Saul says about this.

“With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.”

He also said, Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

We have to appreciate Ananias and his apprehension but we certainly appreciate his obedience more. Ananias had a Divine date with destiny to minister to Saul. The Lord sent Ananias to Saul and eventually sent Saul to the nations. But Saul had to set aside his preconceived notions and presuppositions, of which we read specifically in Philippians, he did, thoroughly. But the sublime string is woven throughout the Scripture. Why does Saul progressively stop using the name Saul, calling himself Paul? Why did Saul need conversion if Israel alone are God’s chosen people? What is the symbolism in the following words of Luke and Ananias?

“And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.”

This was not some small shift–it was a seismic strike against the dead-man walking, to a rebirth in the Spirit. The staunch supporter of strict interpretation of the law has been reborn by the grace of God. Literally and symbolically Saul’s eyes were opened. The evil, eager eradicator of evangelism is now a subservient, studious servant. Saul deserved death but was given life. In this new life, he embraced his sufferings, serving the Master, who also suffered. From a semitic superstar to a suffering servant, Saul had more than a seismic shift. From the head honcho of Hebrew heritage and hope, humbly Saul switched to the suffering servant of the Savior. In a matter of mere moments, Saul went from a strong, staunch supporter of self-righteousness to a weak, humble man. Everything he had lived for, everything he breathed was found to be false, fool’s gold.

Met by Jesus on the road to Damascus, where Saul intended to snatch the Savior’s servants, Saul was confronted with the truth. What’s the application for us today? First, we certainly see the choice of Saul by Jesus. We therefore can trust what Saul, aka Paul, wrote to the early church and others. Paul went from a rockstar, to a nobody, to a suffering servant who spread the word of God–a brilliant play by the Lord.

More controversially is this; Saul represents the Law of Moses. Better yet,  Saul represents Israel. Before the dogmatic dispensationalists allege that I am antisemitic, my Messiah was Jewish. All of the founding fathers and the very “first fruits” of my Jewish Messiah were Jewish. Saul, the semetic servant of the Master was obviously Jewish. He didn’t renounce his blood but his Law-following, self-righteous, taught traditions; his knowledge, his teachings–his religion. Saul remained a Jew until the day that he died but realized that his Hebrew heritage meant nothing as far as salvation was concerned. “Salvation is from the Jews,” yes, meaning that Jesus was Jewish. We also see, as Paul wrote, that they were the ones responsible for scribing the sacred Scripture. Paul promises and prophesied for them; “they did not stumble so as to fall…” yet, “branches were broken off.” And, “what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” Paul rhetorically reasons for the re-inclusion of Israel, being grafted back into True Israel. Picture the olive tree, the roots are the roots, they are not going anywhere. But branches have been broken off. Paul was one of those branches until Christ called him. Remember that the branches were broken off for their unbelief.

Forget that, people are easily confused by literary illustrations (quite obviously because it completely dispels the myth that God has 2 distinct people with 2 distinct plans), let’s think pragmatically and Scripturally. Let’s think heavenly and not earthly, honestly and sincerely, spiritually and logically, in “Spirit and truth (neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem)” –who would possibly care about an oblique land promise when we have Christ! I am afraid it is that simple. Life from the dead or a sliver of sand in the desert…now I have got you thinking. Nothing could be more “racist” than saying, Israel belongs to the Jews. It’s tantamount to saying, Africans belong in Africa, Irish belong in Ireland, Scottish in Scotland and Asians in Asia. It is earthly thinking. And as Stephan  spoke before his stoning, “Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool.” Saul, who previously persecuted the Christians, clearly understood this–he went to great lengths to explain this. But rather than get our doctrine from the converted Christ-persecutor, we get our truth from “The Late Great Planet Earth” and the margin notes in the Ryrie Study Bible.

Does Israel have a future and a hope? Absolutely, and his name is Yeshua, not Benjamin or Naphtali. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father promise salvation to eternal life–and we are arguing over a sliver of sand. Of which, Saul himself has clarified the land promise. “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.”

Clearly Christ called Saul because of his Hebrew heritage; his pedigree but he changed his mind and converted him. I am certainly glad that he did.

 

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