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Acts

The Road to Damascus

Acts  9:1-31

The story of Saul’s conversion is one of the more important bits of history in the early church – we see it repeated in Acts three times. It is drama on the wayside, and we should study it carefully.

(Acts 9:1-31 NIV) Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest {2} 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. {3} As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. {4} He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" {5} "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. {6} "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." {7} The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. {8} 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. {9} For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. {10} In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered. {11} 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. {12} In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." {13} "Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. {14} And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." {15} But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. {16} I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." {17} 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." {18} Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, {19} and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. {20} At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. {21} 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?" {22} Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. {23} After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, {24} but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. {25} But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. {26} When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. {27} But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. {28} So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. {29} He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. {30} When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. {31} Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

Saul – on the road

Saul is a man with an attitude problem. We see him “breathing out murderous threats.” The language in the original is particularly intense. This is the young man who approved the stoning of Stephen. Many have speculated since that the guilt of that act was the driving force in Saul’s persecution of the church. Then blindness struck and a voice spoke.

The words of Jesus

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will remember the “curious incident of the dog in the night.” Inspector Gregory said, “the dog did nothing in the night.” Replied Holmes, “That was the curious incident.”

It is fascinating to see what Jesus does not say here.

·         There is no touch of the glory of God in this. Jesus does not proclaim himself as the Christ, but rather simply as Jesus. There is no sense of triumphing over an enemy. It is all rather matter of fact.

·         He also tells him nothing about the future. That is left to a later time.

There is a lesson in this for us. There may come a time when we see our enemies blinded and at our feet. We need to remember that our Lord dealt with Saul this way – and do likewise.

What, then, does Jesus say? He identifies himself as Jesus, the one whom Saul is persecuting – and asks Saul, “Why?”

·         Jesus takes the persecution of his children personally. It is not “my church” or even “my people” but “me.” But consider: if someone persecutes my children, are they not persecuting me in a very real way? So great is Jesus’ love for his church that their persecution is his persecution. He feels the pain.

·         He gives Saul a question; a chance for self-examination. Why are you doing this? What is driving you? “Let a man examine himself” is still good advice.

·         He ends with a simple instruction: “Get up and go.” He leaves the process of conversion to the church. It is interesting that once the Great Commission was given Christ never again tells anyone how to enter the kingdom of God – he has given that task to the church. Even here, the church goes to Saul to bring him to salvation.

Saul’s reaction

Until Ananias comes, Saul reaches back into his Jewish roots and does two things which he is sure are blessed by God:

·         He fasts. It is a sign of repentance; it is a sign that nothing is more precious to him than God, not even life itself.

·         He prays. How can he not?

It is curious to note one thing. Jesus picked one particular spot to do this: the road to Damascus. There is symbolism in that:

·         It is outside the territory of Israel – symbolic that Saul will bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.

·         It is on the road, signifying the kind of life Saul will lead from now on, always wandering from place to place.

·         He begins his ministry by suffering blindness – which he will trade for suffering to come.

Ananias

Of this man we know nothing but what is written here. Let us learn what we can.

Ananias – the anonymous

If there is anything particularly striking about Ananias, it is that there is nothing striking about him. He is distinguished by being so ordinary. Why, then, did our Lord choose such a man to bring the Gospel to Saul?

·         So that Saul might know that salvation comes not through some hierarchy of priests, or powerful personage – but only through Jesus Christ. The insignificance of the messenger highlights the significance of the message.

·         Note, too, that Ananias taught him nothing. Salvation is not a matter of learning, but of acceptance of what God has already done.

Ananias – the fearful

Ananias seems to be a reasonable person. The reason the Gospel has spread to Damascus is because of persecution, and here is Mr. Persecution himself.

·         This is a typical reaction of anyone called by God to do the dangerous or unpleasant (remember Jonah?)

·         Ananias is reacting in human terms. After all, it is no more likely that Saul has been converted than Madeline Murray O’Hair’s son became a Christian (which, by the way, he did). This is highly improbable.

·         Worse, God is not asking Ananias to set this man straight – he’s asking him to restore his sight. A logical reaction would be, “Let’s keep him blind!”

This fear is not limited to Ananias. Three years later, when Saul comes to Jerusalem, the reaction of the disciples is just the same. It took a man like Barnabas to jump out in faith and bring Saul in.

God relieves Ananias’ fears, however.

·         After all, the man is blind. What do you fear from a blind man? And, if you restore his sight to him, have you not made him a friend?

·         More important, he is praying. A man of prayer is the friend of God, and the friend of God will not harm you.

·         God has even gone to the trouble of arranging the meeting – and telling Saul the man’s name! (I wonder if Ananias would have argued more if God hadn’t told him that Saul was expecting him by name. Courtesy is courtesy, after all.)

Ananias – the obedient servant

Ultimately, of course, Ananias does as God commands. It is interesting to see how he approaches Saul: he calls him “brother Saul.”

·         He does not gloat over the distress of the man who was the enemy of the church. Rather, he welcomes him to the family of God.

·         He claims no superiority over Saul, for the word “brother” implies an equal.

·         He is the model of forgiveness. Despite what Saul has done, from the first moment he speaks only of what must now be done.

Ananias is conveying mercy. He does so not as one who has been offended personally, but on behalf of the church.

·         What we bind on earth is bound in heaven; what we let loose on earth is let loose in heaven. Saul’s forgiveness is now confirmed by the church.

·         Why Ananias? Why not someone who had suffered personally at Saul’s hands? Perhaps it is easier to forgive on behalf of the church when you are not the one suffering from the forgiven.

There is a delicious irony of names in this passage. Saul goes to the house of a man named Judas (the same as the traitor) to hear from a man named Ananias (the same as the one who died for lying to the Holy Spirit). Connecting those two names is the street called Straight Street. Perhaps it is God’s way of telling us that even Judas and Ananias can be saved – walking the Straight Way.

Saul – after the road

If there is anything striking about this conversion, it is this: Saul immediately begins teaching Christ in the synagogues.

·         It shows us the personal courage of the man. There is no attempt to cover up the past, or make a sliding transition – he jumps right in. It is still true: great sinners make great saints.

·         The impact of this man must have been tremendous. Here is one who persecuted and now praises the Christ. The power of the reformed drug addict in speaking to those addicted is a modern parallel.

·         There is a lesson in here for new Christians. You may be ignorant; you may be unsure of yourself – but you must also share the faith you have.

Ultimately, Saul winds up leaving Damascus in a basket, over the city wall. We must understand that cities at this time are walled for protection. If you wanted to catch someone leaving you would post men at the city gates. Even in his leaving there are lessons for us:

·         First, when persecuted, the Christian is permitted to flee – and take the Gospel with him.

·         Next, note that Saul’s deliverance was by the hands of his fellow Christians. Sometimes God works in miraculous ways. More commonly he expects us to do what we can.

There is an inevitability to persecution. The stronger the Gospel, the more likely the persecution. In that sense what happened to Saul is rather ordinary. What is extraordinary is that God told him beforehand what would happen to him. Perhaps this is God’s way of forging a particular tool for a particular task. Suffering forges us too.

·         One reason for our suffering is so that we might distinguish Christ from an investment broker. The broker promises risk and returns. So does Christ – but he also promises persecution.

·         Our suffering here is rewarded in heaven and at our Lord’s return.

·         Our suffering, however minor, is in some sense an imitation of Christ, the highest duty of a Christian.

All this suffering has a purpose, however. Saul was to bring the Gospel to three types of people:

·         Gentiles

·         Kings

·         Israel

It is as if he was “working his way up.” Ultimately his greatest disappointment came from his own people.

Summary

Is there a lesson for us today in all this? I submit there is:

·         Be obedient. When God calls you to do something, do it. Do it despite what you’ve heard about the danger. Do it despite your anger and fear.

·         Be ready to change. It may be you will need to change your whole life, like Saul. It may be only your point of view about one particular person, like Ananias. But be ready.

·         The war is not over when the battle is won. It is over when your enemy becomes your friend.

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