Conversion of a Terrorist

Acts 9:1-31

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
July 2013

We come to a very interesting section of Scripture.  Jesus appears THREE TIMES to people in these verses.  He appeared twice to Saul. The first time he appeared to Saul was on the Damascus Road.  Jesus knocks him on the ground with a bright light and speaks to him.

The second time Saul saw Jesus was in a vision and he was actually blind at the time. The third time Jesus appeared was to a Christian named Ananias.  Jesus appeared to him and told him to go to Judas’ house where Saul was staying, put your hands on him, heal him and baptize him, because he is my chosen instrument.

Now this is the second time in the Book of Acts that we encounter a man named Ananias but this is a different Ananias from the one in Acts 5.  That Ananias was dead.  This was a different man.  As far as we know, this was not a pastor.  He was not an apostle.  He was an ordinary Christian.  He is just called “a disciple” (9:10) but he evidently had the gift of healing but he didn’t want to do what God told him to do.

Ananias was afraid, because Saul was putting believers in prison and killing them. He thought that God was sending him on a suicide mission.  It was harder to convince Ananias that Saul was saved than it was to convince Saul that Jesus was the Messiah.

Saul knew immediately when Jesus spoke to him and he did not argue with Jesus.  God just him over the head with a two-by-four.  Ananias argued with God. He finally goes to Judas’ house and heals and baptizes Saul.

Saul begins preaching that Jesus is the Messiah in the synagogue there.  He became another Stephen.  No one could answer him either, so they tried to get rid of him.  The Jews had planned to kill him but the church protected Saul and helped him escape from the city.

He heads back to Jerusalem and tries to make contact with the church there but no one would talk to him.  They were afraid of him as well.  The thought this was a trick.  Only one man believed he was really saved and that was Barnabas.  He was the one who convinced the other believers that Saul was genuinely saved.

What I want to do today is to take a closer look at the conversion of Saul.  It was dramatic.  It was spectacular. It is the most famous conversion story in history.  It is one of the most important chapters in Acts.  It is so important that it is mentioned not once or twice but three different times in the book (Acts 9, 22, 26).

This conversion not only changed Saul’s life, it changed the course of history.  What would the church be like if Saul never came to faith?  He would not have written thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The New Testament would only have fourteen books in it.

What would the Bible be like without the Book of Romans?  There would be no Reformation.  Martin Luther got saved from reading Romans and started the whole Reformation movement, breaking away from the Catholic Church, and starting the whole Protestant movement. The Book of Acts would only have twelve chapters in it.  The last fifteen chapters of the book are devoted to Paul’s life and ministry.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened to Saul.  Pat Abendroth called this section “A Killer Conversion.”  Who was this man Saul?  What do we know about him?

Saul’s Background 

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” (9:1-2)

In today’s language, Saul was a terrorist.  Paul was a jihadist.  He wanted to rid the world of Christianity.  He was not only a persecutor of the church, he was the lead persecutor of the church.  He tried to destroy the church (Acts 8:3; I Timothy 1:13).  Hitler tried to destroy Jews.  Saul tried to destroy Christians (who at this time were all mostly Jewish).  He made that his life mission.

Saul was chief of the Jewish Gestapo. He not only threatened believers, he persecuted them TO THEIR DEATH (22:4; 26:10).  Stephen was the first Christian martyr in Acts 7.  He is killed by an angry mob and Saul gave consent to Stephen’s death.  Luke tells us that as Stephen was getting his head bashed open by rocks and Saul was cheering them on (8:1).

He gave consent to Stephen’s death.  He did not object, plead for mercy or try to stop it. Paul not only persecuted the church, he was the driving force behind the persecution of the Christians. He did three things to get Christians.

He went HOUSE TO HOUSE to drag people off to prison (8:3). He knocked on every door and asked if there were any Christians here. Every Christian he found, he arrested and threw into prison.  He dragged women, as well as men, out of their homes.

He went from SYNAGOGUE TO SYNAGOGUE to arrest people (26:11). Jewish believers at this still worshiped in the synagogues.  That is where they could be found.

He went from CITY TO CITY to arrest people (26:11). It was not enough to arrest people in Jerusalem.  Saul was willing to travel to other cities to have them arrest people and he did this more than once.  That is what is happening in Acts 9.

He goes from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians.  Paul becomes a bounty hunter and it was his idea.  Paul went to the Sanhedrin. They did not come to him. The chief priest did not initiate this persecution. Paul did.

When persecution began, the believers fled. They left town, because they did not want to get arrested. Some believers fled to Damascus and thought they were safe.

That was one hundred and fifty miles away but Saul planned to go there, find them and bring them back to Jerusalem for prosecution and it was on his way to Damascus that he has a spectacular roadside conversion.  How does this conversion relate to us?

Similarities to our Conversion

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (I Timothy 1:15-16)

Paul said in I Timothy 1:16 that his conversion experience was an example for those who believe.  We get saved the same way Paul did. All conversions are similar to his.  In some ways, Paul’s conversion is similar to ours.  In order to get saved, several things have to happen.

1) We all have an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Salvation only takes place when we finally realize who he is and ask him to save us.  Salvation involves a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

2) We all encounter grace from Jesus.

Salvation involves grace.  We get what we do not deserve. Saul experienced grace on the Damascus Road.  Saul was persecution Christians to their death.  He was killing people.  He deserved to die but he experienced grace.

Saul was breathing threatening and slaughter.  Jesus was breathing grace and mercy.  Jesus blinded Saul for three days but he could have killed him.  Jesus said to him “Why are you persecuting me?”  He could have said to him “Prepare to die” or “Get ready to meet your Maker.”

3) We all come to a place of brokenness.

We realize we are sinners who deserve Hell.  We realize that we cannot save ourselves. Saul was completely humbled.  He came into town all powerful.  He was armed with official papers from the high priest in Jerusalem (arrest warrants) and was accompanied by a few thugs that served as his police force.

The one who came in so powerful becomes completely powerless. He is thrown face down on the ground, blinded for three days and had to be helped by others just to walk.

4) Salvation is very sudden and unexpected.

James MacDonald describes how salvation takes place. “We all go along thinking we are too sexy for our shirt until God drops a boulder on our life.”  God does something to completely break us (a divorce, death of a spouse, job loss, medical problem) to get us to turn to him in faith.  It is sudden and unexpected, like Saul’s conversion here.

5) Salvation was divinely planned by God.

Saul’s conversion was not an accident.  Saul did not originally choose Jesus.  Jesus chose Saul (cf. John 15:16).  Jesus had to come to Saul first and didn’t ask Saul if he wanted to follow him.

That is very different from how many view the salvation process.  For many people, salvation is all about our decision to follow Jesus.  It is all about us.  if Paul was left to himself, he would be persecuting and terrorizing the church.

6) Salvation results in real changes

Saul’s life was completely turned around after Jesus got a hold of him on the Damascus Road, as we will see.

Differences from our Conversion

In many ways it is very different from our conversion. It is not typical.  It is one of the most spectacular miracles in the Bible. It was sensational.

1) Paul learned the gospel by direct revelation

Paul learned the gospel from Jesus directly.  He did not learn it from someone sharing their faith with him.  Jesus spoke audibly to Paul.  Paul said that he did not receive the gospel “from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12 ESV)

When I got saved, Jesus never spoke to me out loud.  I did not hear any voice from heaven but Saul did.  I learned the Gospel from someone else.  I learned it by having someone preach the salvation message to me. Paul learned the gospel by direct revelation.

2) Paul’s conversion was accompanied by miraculous signs.

There were none when I became a Christian in 1976. I did not see a bright light from heaven. My room was not full of bright light.  I did not receive some heavenly vision or see some bolt of lightning.  I was not knocked to the ground.

I did not go blind after I accepted Christ. I did not experience a miraculous healing like Saul did. God used to things to stop Saul right in his tracks and get his attention.  He used a light and He used a voice.

Saul Encountered a Light 

What do we know about this light?  What were some characteristics of it?  As I meditated on the light, several observations came to my mind about this light.

1) The light was bright

We know when this took place.  It took place at noon when the Sun shines its brightest.  It was very bright.  It was brighter than the Sun (26:13) and this took place around noon (22:6; 26:13) when the Sun shines its brightest.

2) The light was powerful.

It was so bright that it knocked Saul over and blinded him for a few days.  This light was blinding.

3) The light was supernatural

It was not a natural light.  It was supernatural.  Paul called it “a light from heaven” (9:3).  It was a manifestation of the glory of God.

Saul Heard a Voice 

Saul not only saw a bright light, he heard a voice. Paul talked to the voice.  What were some characteristics of this voice?

1) The voice was personal

The voice talked to him and called him by name, not once but twice (Saul, Saul).  Paul says that it spoke to him in Aramaic (26:14).

2) The voice was selective

There were several people traveling with Paul but the voice only talked to one of them.  Saul was God’s “chosen instrument” (9:15).  Saul said that he was apart from birth and was called by God’s grace (Galatians 1:15).

3) The voice was mysterious

Saul doesn’t think he is doing anything wrong and all of the sudden he hears a voice and doesn’t know who it is.  He says, “Who are you?” Jesus knew Saul before Saul knew Jesus.

4) The voice was heavenly

This was a voice from heaven.  It was not an earthly voice.  This was God talking.

5) The voice was perceptive

It knew some things about Saul.  The speaker knew Saul by name.  He knew who Saul was and what he was doing on earth.  Nothing was hidden from heaven.

6) The voice was convicting

Why are you persecuting me?  What have I done to you?  What do you have against me?  Why are YOU persecuting me?  He did not say, “Why is the Sanhedrin persecuting me” or “Why are the Jews persecuting me?” He said, “Why are YOU persecuting me?”

7) The voice was authoritative

This voice gave orders.  This voice told Saul what to do and where to go.

Paul’s Five Revelations on the Damascus Road 

Paul learned five things on the Damascus Road.  He learned some things about Jesus, about himself, about Christians, about his future and about what God wanted him to do.

1) He had a revelation about Jesus.

One day, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13).  There are many crazy ideas about who Jesus is.  Liberal theologians believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher who taught some good ethical principles (love your neighbor and forgive your enemies) but do not believe he is God.  Islam believes Jesus was a prophet (one prophet among many).

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is an angel and is the first created being.  Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers.  They believe that God the Father had sex with one of his many wives and Jesus was the result.

He was the Father’s firstborn son, according to Mormonism.  The Bible says that one day in the future everyone will know who Jesus is.  They will all bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

Paul had some false views of Jesus as well.  He thought he was dead but he found out that he’s alive.  Jesus appeared to Saul and spoke to him.  He thought he was a liar, an impostor and a deceiver but he found out that he is the Messiah.

Before he became a believer, Saul hated Jesus because Jesus was the one who started the whole Christian movement which he was trying to stamp out.  He blasphemed Jesus (I Timothy 1:13).  He said all kinds of bad things about him.  Now he is calling him Lord, Son of God and Messiah.

2) He had a revelation about himself.

The reason many people today do not become Christians is that they do not believe that they are sinners.  If you do not believe you have a problem, you will not come to Christ for the solution.  If you do not believe, you are a sinner, you will see no need to come to a savior.

In fact, Jesus himself said this.  If you do not believe you are sick, you will not go to the doctor (Mark 2:17).  Saul did not have a sense of sin until the Damascus Road.  He thought he was righteous.  He thought he kept the Law.

In fact, he was zealous for the Law but on that day he realized he stood before God as guilty. He had blood on his hands.  He had the blood of the saints on his hands and he knew that God was going to hold him accountable for what he had done. He called himself “the chief of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15, 16).

He deserved judgment from God for his sins. I believe that Saul was under so much conviction and felt so bad that he did not eat for three days. No one forced him to fast or told him to fast.  It was completely voluntary but it shows that Paul was changed on the inside. He was completely broken and repentant.

3) He had a revelation about Christians.

Paul hated Christians. He slandered them. He threatened them.  He persecuted them. He hated them so much that he was willing to travel one hundred and fifty miles to arrest them.  You had to really hate someone to travel that far to get them.  It took a week to get there in the first century. They did not travel by car or by plane. It took a long time to get there.

Damascus is one hundred and fifty miles north of Israel. The city of Damascus still exists today and so does the Street called Straight. It was the main road in the city.  Damascus is currently the capitol of the country of Syria. It is also the largest city in Syria today, in case anyone wants to go visit the place today.

Saul thought Christians were bad guys. He came to arrest them but found out that they were good guys.  They gave him a place to stay.  They gave him food to eat.  They took care of him for three days while he was blind.  They healed him of his blindness.  They protected him from danger. They actually saved his life.  The Jews planned to kill him.  The Christians in Damascus helped him escape at night in a basket.

There is something very ironic here.  At the beginning of the chapter, Saul tries to arrest people.  At the end of the chapter, people try to arrest him.  The former persecutor is persecuted himself. At the beginning of the chapter, believers are fleeing Jerusalem for their own safety.  At the end of the chapter, Saul has to flee the city of Damascus for his own safety. The hunter becomes the hunted himself.

4) He had a revelation about God’s will for his life.

When Jesus appeared to Saul, he asked him a question.  ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (9:4; 22:7; 26:14).  It is found in three chapters of Acts.  Saul asked Jesus two questions as well.  They were important questions.

The answer to these questions is the key to successful living.  The first question is only found in Acts 9 – “Who are you, Lord?” (9:5). That question has to do with SALVATION.  Salvation is finding out about Jesus and who He is.   Until you know who Jesus really is, you cannot be saved.

The next question he asked is found only in Acts 22 – “What do you want me to do, Lord?” (22:10). That question deals with SERVICE.  Paul was totally surrendered to Christ, willing to do whatever he asked him to do.  Before this, he did what he wanted to do, not he is asking the Lord what He wants him to do.

Once we are saved, that is a question that every believer should ask the Lord.  In fact, it is a question that we should ask God every day. God has a distinct plan for every believer.  Some of us spend years trying to find out what it is.

God doesn’t always reveal to us what he wants us to do right away but Saul found out within three days after he was saved what God wanted him to do the rest of his life. God gave him an outline of his ministry. God had a plan for Paul’s life, even before he witnessed to anyone.  He called him to be an apostle.

Paul said that he was called to be an apostle, not by the will of man but by the will of God (Galatians 1:1).  He wanted him to have a ministry with Gentiles.  Paul called himself “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).

 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them  to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Acts 26:17-18).

As Ananias healed him and opened his eyes, Saul was told that he would have a ministry opening the eyes of the spiritually blind.

5) He had a revelation about his future.

Paul learned that his future will involve suffering.  God said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16). That seems a little strange.  His future did not involve comfort and prosperity.  It involved suffering.  Suffering may be part of God’s plan for some of us. It was part of God’s plan for Job. In Paul’s case, it may have involved a little irony.

The one who caused suffering for so many other believers was now going to experience it himself. He received the same punishment that he gave to Christians before he was saved. He went from synagogue to synagogue to flog Christians (Acts 22:19; 26:11) and gets flogged himself by the Jews five times. Each time he received thirty-nine lashes (II Corinthians 11:24). He put others in prison and later he was imprisoned himself for his faith.

Four Powerful Lessons from Paul’s Conversion 

1. Anyone can be saved.

You may have a husband or a wife or a child or a friend who you don’t believe they will get saved or can get saved.  We give up on people.  They are never getting saved.  If Paul can get saved, even though he was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” anyone can get saved.  Someone may say, “I am too wicked.  I have done too many bad things to be saved.”

Paul said that he was “the chief of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15).  He was the worst of sinners.  If the chief of sinners can get saved, anyone can get saved. James MacDonald said, “NO one ANYWHERE under ANY circumstances is beyond the reach of the gospel.”

No one is too hard to come to faith. No one is too hard for God to break or too evil for God to save.  No one is unreachable. The Samaritans were not unreachable. The Ethiopian eunuch was not unreachable and Saul was not unreachable.  God can penetrate any human heart.  Nothing is too hard for God (Jeremiah 32:17).   If God could transform a Jewish terrorist in the first century, he can transform Muslim terrorists in out our own day

2. To persecute the church is to persecute Jesus.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?

Jesus did NOT accuse Saul of persecuting Christians.  He accused Saul of persecuting Him. Jesus didn’t say, “Why are you persecuting THEM”.  Jesus does not say, “Saul, Saul, Why are you persecuting the church?”

He does not say, “Why are you persecuting Stephen and Peter?” He says, “Why are you persecuting ME?”  It was a question Saul never answered. Saul had no answer to this question. It seems to us like a strange question. Jesus was in heaven and Saul was on earth.  How did Saul persecute Jesus?

Apparently, Jesus takes the persecution of His church personally.  Jesus says, “You attack one of my people, you attack me.  You persecute one of my people, you persecute me”.  It is a very serious thing to persecute the church.  According to Jesus, how you treat Christians is an indication of how you treat him.  That is why Paul described the relationship of Jesus to the church as a body.

The church is the body of Christ on earth. Jesus is the head of the body in heaven. If you hurt your foot or you arm, your head feels it, because it is all connected.  Saul was trying to persecute believers in Damascus and Jesus could feel it in heaven.

Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40).

Saul didn’t know that he was persecuting Christ but he was. He thought he was doing God a service.  He was completely sincere, like many Muslim terrorists are who think they are serving God when they commit acts of mass murder and terrorism but they will still be held accountable for their actions.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Many people have the idea that if people do bad things but do not know they are bad that God will somehow excuse them and let them off the hook but that is simply not the case.  Romans 1 describes pagans who worship idols, instead of the true God.  It does not say that they do not know any better.  They are doing the best that they can.  It says that they are “without excuse” (1:20).

3. If you are saved, your life will be radically changed.

If you are genuinely saved, there will be a change in your life and it will be a change that you can see.  If a man claims to have accepted Christ but has no change in his life at all, he is probably not saved.  The whole direction of Paul’s life completely changed.  He was radically transformed.

  • Paul went from being a murderer to being a missionary (perhaps the greatest missionary of all time).
  • He went from being a persecutor to being a preacher.
  • He went from breathing out threats to breathing out sermons.
  • He went from being the chief of sinners to the chief apostle, the one who worked harder than ALL of the apostles, not just some of them (cf. I Corinthians 15:9-10)
  • He went from being a religious man (a Pharisee of the Pharisees) to being a spiritual man.
  • He went from being full of hatred and rage to being full of the Spirit.
  • He went from being the greatest enemy of Christianity to being its greatest defender.
  • He went from fighting Christians to being one of them and publicly identifying with them in water baptism.  This was a bold step of faith for Saul.

Paul’s life was radically transformed.  He was night and day different.  He became a new creation.  It is like he was a different person.  That is why his name changed.  He went from Saul to Paul (not overnight but eventually).  Anyone who knew Saul before knew that he was not the same person he was before.

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 raised 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 Messiah” (Acts 9:20-22).

Luke says that Paul began to preach in the synagogues IMMEDIATELY after he was saved. Paul didn’t waste any time. He didn’t go off to seminary, come back ten years later with a stack of degrees and then begin preaching.

He began preaching immediately in the synagogues of Damascus.  What did he preach?  He preached that Jesus is the Son of God (9:20).  He preached that Jesus is the Messiah (9:22).  He did not just preach it.  He proved it (9:22).  He was an apologist.  He became another Stephen.

4. We can be used by God despite our past.

Peter was an apostle who not only denied Jesus, he denied his three times in public AFTER he was saved but he repented and later God used him greatly.  He preached and three thousand people became converted from his one sermon.  Paul called himself “the chief of sinners.”

He did so many wicked things BEFORE he was saved and yet when he came to faith God greatly used him.  He wrote thirteen books of the New Testament.  The lesson is that God can use people today, no matter what they did before.

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