Acts 9: 1 – 19 Saul’s conversion
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. 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?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’
The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him 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. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’
‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’
But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. 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.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
* * *
Saul had blood on his hands. He had approved Stephen’s killing. He had been actively seeking to imprison and punish, potentially with death, those who followed the Way. St Luke describes him as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”
His zeal to destroy what he saw as the blasphemy of this new religion even extended to obtaining a warrant from the high priest to go to Damascus and arrest Christians there. Within the confines of his society and religious belief, his motivation was good. He wanted to do God’s will. Blasphemy and apostasy were very serious sins under Mosaic law, and the death penalty was not viewed as disproportionate.
The story of Saul’s conversion highlights the dramatic difference between Judaism and Christianity that had emerged in just a few years since Jesus’ death and resurrection. Under Judaism, Saul was a good man and a fervent servant of God. The Christians, by contrast, saw him as a threat to their very existence. However, as this story shows, they had a means of understanding who he truly was, forgiving him, and accepting him as a co-worker in the kingdom of God.
The whole story hinges upon miracles.
Paul sees a vision and hears the voice of Jesus, challenging the whole basis of his life. The experience is so compelling that he takes it to heart. When he gets to Damascus, he fasts, strictly, and prays for three days. During this period, he sees a vision that shows Ananias laying on hands and healing him.
Meanwhile, Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, also has a vision in which he is told to go to Saul and heal him. He’s even given the address. Not surprisingly, Ananias is wary. He points out that Saul has been persecuting the church. However, the Lord tells him to go, because Saul is his chosen instrument for proclaiming Jesus to the world.
Ananias obeys. Saul is healed and baptised as a Christian.
The difference between Saul’s dreadful mistakes before conversion and his powerful witness for Jesus afterwards is down to the work of the Holy Spirit. Before conversion he had the Mosaic law to guide his behaviour and sacrifice in the temple to demonstrate atonement for sin. After conversion he had the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The difference between the Christian experience of God and the Jewish experience of God is down to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Our actions must be guided by the Holy Spirit. We must be obedient to what he tells us. We should expect God to work miracles today, if we listen and obey.
I will add a cautionary note. Our listening to the Holy Spirit must be done with great care. We must test revelations against Scripture. We must pray diligently. We must trust God to teach us how to listen and how to understand, and how to obey.
Thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit. Please help me to be better at listening to him, and more obedient to his guidance.
In Jesus’ name, Amen
There are two accounts of Saul’s conversion in Acts, this one, Acts 9: 1 – 19 and Acts 22: 6 – 21, when Luke reports St Paul telling the Jews of Jerusalem about his conversion. These two accounts are different.
In the NIV translation that I have been using, the difference is smoothed out and hardly perceptible, but in, for example, the King James translation the difference is clear.
Here are the NIV versions of the differences.
Acts 9: 7 “The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.”
Acts 22: 9 “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.”
They heard the sound but did not understand the voice.
And here are the King James versions.
Acts 9: 7 “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.”
Acts 22: 9 “And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.”
They heard a voice/they heard not a voice.
It can certainly be argued that “did not understand the voice” is a more accurate translation of the Greek, but the argument is far from conclusive.
Whether or not the NIV translation is better, it still begs the question as to which translation should be taken as ‘inerrant’; or indeed whether any version should be regarded as inerrant.