Saul the Pharisee continues his aggressive campaign against believers. He sets out on a journey to Damascus in Syria to arrest any disciples of Jesus there. When he has almost arrived to his destination, a light from heaven flashes and knocks him down, blinding him. The voice of Jesus asks Saul why he is persecuting Him. Saul goes into the city, still blind, and does not eat or drink for three days.
Luke, the author of Acts, returns to Saul, a pharisee persecuting the church, who will soon become an apostle for Christ, commonly known by his Greek name, Paul. Saul was introduced in Chapter 8 where he witnessed and approved of the unlawful murder of Stephen: “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death” (Acts 8:1a).
This is a fascinating introduction to Saul, because the Book of Acts is largely a treatise to support Paul’s apostleship. Luke, the author, was a companion in Paul’s ministry and went with Paul on some of his journeys (Acts 16:10, Philemon 1:24). It seems fairly apparent that he wrote Luke and Acts partly to validate Paul’s apostleship. Paul wrote much of the New Testament, and in his letters is evidence of an ongoing battle with detractors over whether his authority as an apostle was genuine. Luke’s account in Acts proves Paul’s authority. Chapter 8 is pivotal since one test of an apostle’s authority was whether they had seen Jesus. Luke documents Paul’s personal engagement with Jesus in this account of Paul on the road to Damascus.
In the first part of Acts, Luke focuses largely on Peter. The word “Peter” does not occur between Acts 15:7 and the end of Acts, Acts 28:31. Luke documents miracles Peter performed that were also performed by Paul, validating Paul’s authority. This includes healing a lame man who walked (Acts 3:1-10, 14:8-10). It also includes raising a dead person (Acts 9:40, 20:9-12). Both of these events validate Paul’s authority.
Luke documents that it was Peter who first took the gospel to the Gentiles, in obedience to God (Acts 10:34-44, 15:7). This validates Paul’s assignment as an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13). Luke also records Peter’s validation of Paul’s overriding message that new life and unconditional acceptance in Christ is gained by grace, through faith, not from our deeds (Acts 15:8-11). After Peter’s speech in which he validates Paul’s message, the book of Acts mentions Peter no more, and only focuses on the ministry of Paul. Paul took the gospel to the Gentiles in the Roman world, as did others influenced by his ministry as well. He then wrote church letters meant for teaching and encouraging believers; these letters circulated to other churches (Colossians 4:16). These letters constitute much of the New Testament. Interestingly, the Apostle Peter encourages his Jewish disciples to study the writings of Paul, showing that Paul’s epistles were spread throughout the early church, and also validates his writings as scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Thus, as a part of validating Paul, Luke is showing where this man Paul came from, who he was, and fully discloses the shameful details of his past. Paul was a Pharisee, belonging to the religious sect that crucified Christ. He spearheaded the campaign against believers that temporarily shattered the Jerusalem church. But rather than hide these details, Luke begins with them, and it works to the advantage of validating Paul’s apostleship because it shows how Jesus can redeem and transform any of us, even His most hostile enemy.
Paul will transform from persecuting the church to planting churches across the Roman world. He goes from approving of Stephen’s murder to suffering beatings and stonings himself (and ultimately execution) for the sake of the gospel. He goes from hating Christ to living his life only for Him (Philippians 1:21).
That is why this introduction to Paul/Saul starts with what a deeply sinful person he was, motivated by power, willing to put innocent people in prison and oversee their death. The Bible is all about truth. This is how Saul was, this is where his spiritual journey toward becoming right with God begins. This is also how the journey for each of us begins, as Paul makes clear in his writings (Romans 3:9-10, 23). All who are saved from the penalty of sin and justified in God’s sight are saved through God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Humility is the ability to see reality as it is. The apostles made mistake after mistake after mistake, and none of them were covered up, so that we could see them and learn from them. It is rare to non-existent for people to record accounts of their deeds and include so many failures. But the apostles did so because their stewardship was to convey to the world a message of redemption; it was a redemption they had experienced for themselves. Flaws did not define who they are. Their choices to obey Christ, and walk in a renewed mind defined who they are. Through their witness we all have an opportunity to overcome our past, see our own faults with reality, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds and the power of Christ (Romans 12:1-2).
Saul gives us biographical information in his letter to the Philippians, long after he believed in Jesus and became a missionary to the Gentiles. Of himself, he writes that he was:
“circumcised the eighth day, of the nation 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 the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”
Later in Acts, he describes himself:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in [Jerusalem], educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.”
Gamaliel was the Pharisee who spoke reasonably to the Sanhedrin, temporarily persuading them to refrain from killing the apostles (Acts 5:34-39). Saul was a student of this shrewd teacher. However, prior to meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, his zealousness was not only for God but also for the Pharisaical establishment, including their system of definitions and rules. So much so that Saul was blinded to the truth, and became a persecutor of followers of Jesus. This persecution began immediately after the stoning of Stephen, which was a murderous act with which Saul agreed at the time (Acts 8:1).
The same day Stephen was murdered, the Pharisees and Priests waged open war against believers: “on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1).
Though the church was scattered (Acts 8:1), this led to the gospel spreading. Philip the Deacon preached the gospel in Samaria, leading many to belief in Jesus (Acts 8:12). He taught a man from the African kingdom of Cush about Jesus, and the Cushite believed and was baptized (Acts 8:37-38). Then Philip went along the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea, preaching from town to town, before settling and establishing a church in Caesarea (Acts 8:40, Acts 21:8-9). This was just one man. The gospel was spreading by the many thousands of believers who fled the persecution in Jerusalem.
Word of the church’s endurance and growth must have reached the ears of the Pharisees and Priests. Saul himself seems to be full of hatred toward the church, continuing a proactive role in persecuting believers in Jesus:
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.
He is not merely sent out by the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, as their representative, he actively seeks the destruction of the Way and its adherents. The Way is what “Christianity” was originally called. The Way of Jesus of Nazareth, who was Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).
Later in Acts, while giving an account of his past, Saul says,
“I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons.”
Luke describes him as still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. Besides Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7), there aren’t any specific references to disciples being killed by the Sanhedrin, only that they are thrown in prison (Acts 8:3). But it seems that the end goal is to murder more believers in Jesus. Killing their enemies is the Pharisees and priests’ go-to solution for solving religious debate when their power and prestige is threatened (Mark 3:6, Acts 5:44).
Saul asks the high priest for letters, official commissions to bring with him to the synagogues at Damascus. His purpose is to show the rabbis in Damascus that he is from the high priest and has authority to make arrests in the synagogues there. There was probably word that men and women who were belonging to the Way of Jesus had recently arrived in Damascus. Saul wants to arrest them, to bring them bound to Jerusalem and put them in prison with the other arrested disciples.
That Saul is focusing on the synagogues means that his quest was targeted at Jews, as the synagogue was a gathering place for Jews. Saul desired to search the synagogues and if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. To gain a mental image of Saul’s objective, we might think of someone in the modern era coming to church pastors and asking them to point to anyone in their congregation who espoused a certain doctrine, with the intent to put them in chains and take them back to headquarters to be put on trial, and possibly killed (as was Stephen). This is actually occurring many places in the world at the time of this writing, in countries where the Christian gospel is outlawed.
After a number of days traveling, Saul draws near Damascus. Damascus was in Syria, 140 or so miles north of Jerusalem. There were other men traveling with Saul, likely temple guards or hired men to help arrest believers in Damascus and transport them to Jerusalem as prisoners. Here Jesus intervenes directly. In this single action, Christ will bring relief to His church’s persecution by removing its most hateful enemy from his mission, changing that enemy into a defender of the Christian faith and a soldier for the gospel (Ephesians 6:10-18).
As Saul was nearing his destination, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. The presence of God often appears in grand, fiery fashion, such as when He spoke to Moses through the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), or when He led the Israelites through the wilderness as a pillar of flame (Exodus 13:21). His angels sometimes appear in brilliant light (Daniel 10:6). In the new earth, the sun will be unnecessary because the Lord God will dwell in the New Earth with the full expression of His glory, and will fill the earth with light (Revelation 22:5).
Jesus Himself revealed His glory while He was on earth as a man, showing Peter, John, and James a glimpse of who He truly was beyond human appearance:
“And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.”
Here Christ stops Saul in his tracks, just as the hostile pharisee is about to enter Damascus and arrest more believers. Saul fell to the ground, perhaps from the saddle of a horse, blinded by this light from heaven that flashed all about him. The light was apparently all Saul could see of Jesus. But he had no doubt that it was Jesus (Acts 26:16).
Saul then heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Saul asks for the identity of the speaker, “Who are You, Lord?”
And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
It is interesting to note that Jesus tells Saul that he is persecuting Him. From Saul’s perspective, he intended to persecute the men and women of the church. But persecuting Jesus’s followers is the same as persecuting Him because the church is the body of Christ (Colossians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17), and when His people endure persecution, Jesus is being persecuted.
We know from Saul’s account of this event later in Acts that Jesus spoke to him in the Hebrew language (Acts 26:14). The language of commerce was Greek and the common language among Jews was Aramaic. Hebrew was spoken by the highly educated, such as Saul. This was likely mentioned by Saul to make clear to his audience that this was not an illusion.
Jesus gives Saul instructions: but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do. It is interesting to note that Jesus’s first instruction to Saul was to ask him to do something quite simple. Get up and enter the city with an expectation that he would be told what he must do. It is simple and blunt. Jesus makes a command, and does not ask if Saul has any questions. Unlike Moses at the burning bush, where there was a sort of negotiation, Jesus is quite short with Saul (Exodus 3). Perhaps this is because of Saul’s persecution of His people. Saul fully intended to capture and imprison Jesus’s people. Here Jesus treats him much like a prisoner himself. A consistent theme in scripture is that God treats us like we treat others (Matthew 6:14-15, 7:2).
As for the men who traveled with Saul, they did not receive the full experience he did. Something supernatural and terrifying was clearly happening from their perspective, because they were hearing the voice of Jesus but seeing no one. So they stood speechless, dumbfounded. It is not unlike a vision the prophet Daniel had in Babylon, when an angel appeared before him and he fell down,
“Now I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, while the men who were with me did not see the vision; nevertheless, a great dread fell on them, and they ran away to hide themselves.”
Years later, when Saul is recounting this event, he adds the detail that, “those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.” To them it was as though a sudden bright light flashed in the sky, and a bodiless voice spoke, but they did not know what it said. This message was for Saul alone. At another retelling, Saul reveals something else Christ said to him there on the road, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).
A goad was a nail fixed to the end of a stick, used to poke and prod oxen to force them to move forward, or to guide them into a different direction. Jesus is goading Saul, He is addressing him head on to cause him to stop attacking the church, to reverse course, to believe in Jesus as the Messiah who came to save his people. Perhaps Christ had been reaching out to Saul in other ways before this revelation on the road to Damascus, since He uses the plural “goads.” Like an ox kicking at a goad, it was useless. The goads from Jesus Christ would not stop until Saul yielded, not matter how many times he tried to kick and make them go away. Saul had received a very sharp poke from God.
Furthermore, after Jesus identifies Himself, He tells Saul what His will is for him. Although Saul has been captured and “bound” through blindness, Jesus does give him the “why” of his “arrest”:
“But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.”
This would have been a shock to a young, upstart Pharisee like Saul.
Saul also gave his testimony in Acts 26:19 to King Agrippa, adding, “So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision.” He had received his charge from God, he saw that this would be his life now, this was the truth which he had fought against, and now in understanding what Jesus the Christ wanted from him, he was devoted to this ministry of opening the eyes of the Jews and Gentiles, even as his eyes were opened. He was focused on turning them from darkness to light, even as he was turned.
There was only one problem. Saul’s eyes were blinded. The light from heaven as Jesus appeared to him took away his sight. Christ told him to get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do. He would have to wait for further instructions, blind, and with a new destiny put upon his shoulders by Christ Himself.
Saul obeyed. He got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. The men who were with him, who had seen the light and heard Jesus’s voice, saw that he was blind and so they helped him. They guided him, and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. Saul came to Damascus to bind believers in Jesus and lead them back to Jerusalem. Now Saul is bound (in blindness) and being led to Damascus, uncertain of what might lay ahead. At this point we might speculate that Saul is considering that his future ministry will be accomplished as a blind man.
Thus Saul arrived in Damascus, the city to which he had come to arrest and transport believers back to Jerusalem for trial before the Sanhedrin, with the goal of persecuting all followers of the Way. Now Saul belonged to the Way.
And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. He fasted, and prayed (Acts 9:11).
At this point, Saul certainly seems to have gotten the message, and he is in full repentance. Christ described His pursuit of Saul’s heart as though He were goading him, jabbing at him, to get his attention. For someone as zealously, violently opposed to the disciples of Christ, Saul needed such a stunning experience to bring him to repentance. To have three days without sight, to fast, and to pray after such an encounter was surely a healing and refining process for Saul, communing with God when he had formerly been His enemy. Perhaps he was confessing past sins, past hatred, and pondering the future life that awaited him as a minister of Christ.
9 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 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. 3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” 7 The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 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. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
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