THREE VISIONS. Surrounding the conversion of Saul are three visions. First, he saw a vision of Christ on the Road to Damascus. Second, the Lord called to a disciple named Ananias in a vision:
“Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying (Acts 9:10-11).
Note that Saul is praying. From this time forward, he would live in constant communication with the Lord—he would pray continually. For the Christian, prayer is like breathing. The Lord answers Saul’s prayer with the third vision surrounding his conversion:
In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight” (Acts 9:12).
Ananias flinched in terror at the very name of Saul of Tarsus. Yet, he bravely obeyed the Lord and went to Straight Street. He inquired in the house of Judas for Saul and healed his blindness.
Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17).
Ananias communicated three significant facts to Saul.
1. Saul is a brother—a member of Christ’s family.
2. It was Jesus who appeared to him on the Damascus Road.
3. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Ananias confirmed that Saul, as with the Eleven, met the qualifications for an apostle, having seen the risen Lord, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and chosen by Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:7-9). Jesus’ words to the Eleven applied to Saul:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last (John 15:16).
Saul baptized and filled with the Spirit, sent shock waves across the city of Damascus. The man who was supposed to destroy the Way had become one of them.
At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 9:19-22).
Miraculously, Saul’s common ground had changed. Instead of denouncing Jesus Christ and hounding to the death those of the Way, Saul began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. The Jews of Damascus were astonished and baffled. From their perspective, the persecutor was preaching Christ the renegade prophet crucified as a common criminal by the Romans. Saul had switched sides and was making known his new allegiance to Jesus the Messiah. The Jews probably thought that Saul had suffered sunstroke, hallucinations, epilepsy or a psychological breakdown.
REGENERATION. The old Saul was the worst of sinners, the new Saul was absolutely, totally transformed. It was not superficial; it was deep. His salvation was instantaneous, not a process. Jesus did not tell Nicodemus, “I can change you—I can create a metamorphosis.” No! He said, “You must be born again.” The words in the NT for change are “regeneration” and “new birth.” It is the work of God, not man. Yahweh declared:
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19).
Before his conversion, Saul was a horrible character. He was cruel. He was hostile. He was zealous for his own opinion. If someone did not agree with his opinion, killing them was one of his options. He was self-sufficient, self-righteous, independent, inflexible, angry, unloving, a murderer, and so on. He was a dirty rotten sinner!
After his conversion, Saul’s whole life flip-flopped to the exact opposite. He exchanged everything. All of the old things he hated, suddenly he loved; all of the old things he loved, suddenly he hated. Everybody he used to serve, he stopped serving; and everybody he used to design plans against, he was in service to. Everything completely changed, and that’s how regeneration works. Christianity is not a repair job; it is a transformation!
The living Christ grasped hold of Saul and turned him around. His life from now on would be Christ centered. He was “a man in Christ.” His theological writings would be arguments supporting the nature of the Son of God as well as interpretations of his unusual personal experiences, which convinced him that Christ was the living Lord of mankind and in control of the world. Saul, like all Christians, was saved to serve.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Acts 9:20 says, “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Faith in the Savior instantly produces fervor to tell others the Good News. This experience is common with new converts; however, many lose this passion and drive, but not Saul.
THE MESSAGE. What did Saul preach about Christ in the synagogues of Damascus? Many scholars have observed that the early Christian proclamation or preaching contained the following elements:
1. Prophecies of the OT have been fulfilled in Christ’s first coming
2. Christ had been born
3. Christ had been crucified
4. Christ was buried
5. God raised Christ from the dead
6. God glorified Christ at His right hand
7. The Holy Spirit has been sent
8. Christ will return to judge the world
9. Man ought to repent and be baptized
10. The kingdom of God
If we look at Paul’s letters to the world, we find his letters contain this basic core of Christian teaching and present it in a dramatic and effective way. His salutation to the Romans (1:1-7) is a good example of this basic core. Paul’s portrait of Christ in his letters comes from the disciples, his own personal experiences as well as revelations from Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
As Saul preached Christ, he grew more powerful. The Spirit of God enlightened his once darkened mind with understanding of OT Scriptures, which proved Jesus to be the Messiah. Before his conversion, he was unable to see the truth of Christ in the OT and the message of the cross was foolishness. Now he knew from personal experience that one had to have the mind of Christ to understand the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
Once he understood the truth, he never wavered. His strong, inflexible convictions were wrong prior to salvation but were a strong asset when refined by the Spirit and used for the glory of God.
Saul was Jesus’ choice to replace Judas as an apostle. He picked a self-sufficient, independent, bold, pragmatic, motivated, crusader, who liked to talk. In the ensuing years, He would chip away the roughness with gentleness, the restlessness with peace, the pride with humility. The regeneration was instantaneous; the metamorphoses would take years.
Paul could have said at any time in his life, “God is still working on me.” Many Christians are reluctant, for some strange reason, to believe that they are being transformed gradually. God will change you at His own pace if you let Him. Spiritual growth like physical growth is gradual. It occurs in God’s timing, not ours. Paul is the Bible’s best example of this truth. It will take fifteen years of gradual spiritual growth, before the Holy Spirit is willing to send Paul on his first missionary journey as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Suffering would be one instrument used in the refinement of the apostle. The Lord had said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16).
After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall (Acts 9:23-25).
Some scholars believe “after many days had gone by” refers to two or three years. What was Saul doing during those years? According to Galatians 1:17-18, after his conversion Paul says:
Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days.
Saul might have begun preaching in Damascus and then moved to Arabia and preached there or he might have gone to Arabia just to be taught of Christ. Most likely, there is a three-year interval between Acts 9:22 and 23. When Saul returned to Damascus, the Jews conspired to kill him.