He Saw the Light

Acts 9:1-19

There’s certainly not an unimportant chapter in Acts, but if you were charting the significant events, it would spike here in chapter 9. Of course, chapter 10 will chronicle the conversion of Cornelius and the entrance of Gentiles into the church, but even that falls a little below the importance of what God does in the life of Saul of Tarsus.

And we’ll have plenty of time in the coming chapters to talk about what Saul/Paul does – what I want to focus on this morning is what God does in the life of Saul. Because, as Paul himself will point out later, “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Cor. 15:9-10).

Don’t forget that our first introduction to Saul was back in ch. 8, when Stephen is stoned to death, and Saul holds the coats of the murderers and looks on in approval. And then Saul launches a massive manhunt to track down and imprison the believers and destroy the church.

This is another one of those instances where I wish we could read this as if for the first time, because when we read this chapter, we would jump up and shout, “God, you’re going to do what? What are you thinking?!” Who in his right mind would think that Saul would even become a Christian, let alone the most powerful proclaimer of God’s word who ever lived? It’s not like God doesn’t have eleven great men of God to select from who had followed Jesus every day of his three year earthly ministry. But not only does God not do that, he goes into the enemy’s camp and selects their rising star to lead the charge into the Gentile world.

Pardon me for saying it the hundredth time – but God always works in the most unexpected ways to accomplish the most amazing results.

Nobody is quite sure what drove Saul to go to Damascus to hunt down Christians. Maybe word had come that a strong cell had formed that was especially insidious and needed Saul’s strong arm to root out and destroy. Damascus was 140 miles away from Jerusalem – a week’s travel by foot. They were almost there – one more day’s journey and they would reach their destination. Saul could almost taste it as he arose that morning. He felt called by God to this glorious mission of destroying these heretics – how could they dare invoke the name of his God in claiming He had sent this Jesus who threatened everything he held dear. He would hunt down every last one of them and make them pay for their blasphemy.

As they walked that morning, Saul and his companions talked about the joy and excitement that came with doing this service for God. There was no reward, no bounty – this was a labor of devotion. They were proud to be used by God. Their steps quickened at the thought of arriving at the gate of Damascus that afternoon.

It was about noon when it happened. It depends on whom you ask as to what happened. Saul’s companions would have sworn lightning struck out of a clear sky, and thunder knocked them to the ground and stunned them. Saul would tell you this: “About noon, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 'Who are you, Lord?' I asked. 'I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. 'What shall I do, Lord?' I asked. 'Get up,' the Lord said, 'and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.'” (Acts 22,26).

It must have seemed like hours, but it had only lasted a few minutes. When they got up off the ground, the companions are all dusting themselves off and saying, “What was that?” But as Saul got up, he realized that he was blind – and worse than that – he was lost. His companions led him by the hand those last few miles into Damascus, but Saul didn’t say a word – he was wrestling with what had just happened and what to do next. They took him to the house of a man named Judas on Straight Street, and left him there while they went off to begin the business for which they came.

There Saul sat and stared into the darkness, wondering what was to become of him. (If you think those people in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost had a scare when Peter told them they had crucified the Son of God, think how terrified Saul must have been sitting there realizing that he had come face to face with this Jesus whom he was personally trying to destroy.)

The Lord let him sit there three days in prayer and darkness, while across town he was selecting his personal envoy, Ananias, to deliver a message. And as you can imagine, Ananias’ response is utter disbelief – “You want me to do what! Lord, haven’t you heard the news? He’s out to destroy the church, and he’s here to arrest all of us.”

The Lord assures Ananias that he knows exactly what he’s doing, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” And he also throws in a little note that will become very significant as we continue to watch Paul in the coming chapters – “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

I imagine Ananias had thoughts like Jonah had when the Lord told him to go to Nineveh – “I’m catching the first ship out of town.” But unlike Jonah, Ananias does exactly what the Lord tells him to do. And when he arrives at the house on Straight Street, he finds a very humbled Saul, who is no longer breathing murderous threats, but is now ready to listen and obey the Lord. Ananias placed his hands on Saul and 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.”

Luke writes, “Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.”
We know there was more said, and details that we would love to have – Paul himself will give us a few more details when he recounts his conversion in chapters 22 and 26, but Luke gives us the Cliff Notes version. Ananias instructs Saul, Saul receives his sight, Saul is baptized and is filled with the Holy Spirit.

What we see happening at this moment is so huge that we simply cannot overstate its importance. Your Bible may have a heading at the top of this chapter entitled “Saul’s Conversion.” Conversion is a great word for what happens to Saul. Conversion describes a transformation from one state to another, a metamorphosis – it is like a caterpillar into a butterfly or sooty carbon into a diamond. But it is a also a process that involves great changes and upheaval.

Saul doesn’t just come to a fork in the road and choose a different direction. God jerks the road out from underneath Saul and sets him down on a different road all together. Everything he once believed and trusted is, in an instant, proved to be wrong. His life’s path, which he pursued relentlessly, is shown to him to be headed in the opposite direction from what he thought and intended. When those scales fell from his eyes, it’s not just that he can see again – it’s that he can see for the first time.

And I don’t want you to walk away this morning thinking, “Wasn’t that an amazing thing that happened to Saul?” Because God intends for the very same thing to happen to you – not the bright light and the scales falling from your eyes – but that when you are baptized, you are truly converted. Not just a minor change of direction, but a complete rewrite of your life’s story. There are some folks who are baptized, but never converted – they go through the motions, but they never really give their heart and their life to Jesus.

We give the impression sometimes that baptism is a nice little ritual where already good people become a little better – a coming of age ceremony where we affirm what we already know to be true. But conversion means a change of life, a change of direction, a death to the old life and a rebirth into a new. When Paul writes to the Corinthian church, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come,” he’s not being metaphorical, he is being literal. When you come out of the water of baptism, you have left everything belonging to the old life in that watery grave. Your sin, your direction, your destination – have been replaced by Jesus’ righteousness, God’s purpose and a home in heaven. When you make Jesus your Lord, a transaction occurs, an exchange is made – here’s how Paul described it to the Corinthians, “We are convinced that one died for all therefore all have died, and he died for all that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

Conversion isn’t just changing your mind – it’s changing your life. And before we can ever hope to convert the world to Christ, we ourselves must be converted. Our lives are the evidence of our conversion – and people want to know – what kind of a difference has Christ made in your life? Can they see the change of ownership, or is it business as usual? What will it take for Christ to get your attention and change your direction?

Illustration – Making it to the Hall of Fame: New York Giants assistant coach Mike Pope (age 60) takes young Jeremy Shockey (age 21) to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They walk through the corridors, "men of different generations, nearly opposite temperaments, locked together by the whims of their sport…. We took a look at all the busts and all the pictures," Pope recalled, "and I said to him, 'I'm going to do with you or to you or for you whatever I have to and hopefully get you in this line of statues, because you have the talent to be here. You can get mad at me; I don't care. I'm going to make you the type of player who gets in here.'"

That’s what God was doing with Saul – and that’s what God wants to do with us. Don’t simply warm a pew – make a difference – let God change you and use you in a powerful way.