From Persecutor to Disciple
[This chapter is based on Acts 9:1-18.]
Prominent among the Jewish leaders who became thoroughly aroused by
the success attending the proclamation of the gospel, was Saul of
Tarsus. A Roman citizen by birth, Saul was nevertheless a Jew by descent
and had been educated in Jerusalem by the most eminent of the rabbis.
"Of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin," Saul was
"a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness
which is in the law, blameless." Philippians 3:5, 6. He was
regarded by the rabbis as a young man of great promise, and high hopes
were cherished concerning him as an able and zealous defender of the
ancient faith. His elevation to membership in the Sanhedrin council
placed him in a position of power.
Saul had taken a prominent part in the trial and conviction of
Stephen, and the striking evidences of God's presence with the martyr
had led Saul to doubt the righteousness of the cause he had espoused
against the followers of Jesus. His mind was deeply stirred. In his
perplexity he appealed to those in whose wisdom and judgement he had
full confidence. The arguments of the priests and rulers finally
convinced him that Stephen was a blasphemer, that the Christ whom the
martyred disciple had preached was an impostor, and that those
ministering in holy office must be right.
Not without severe trial did Saul come to this conclusion. But in the
end his education and prejudices, his respect for his former teachers,
and his pride of popularity braced him to rebel against the voice of
conscience and the grace of God. And having fully decided that the
priests and scribes were right, Saul became very bitter in his
opposition to the doctrines taught by the disciples of Jesus. His
activity in causing holy men and women to be dragged before tribunals,
where some were condemned to imprisonment and some even to death, solely
because of their faith in Jesus, brought sadness and gloom to the newly
organised church, and caused many to seek safety in flight.
Those who were driven from Jerusalem by this persecution "went
everywhere preaching the word." Acts 8:4. Among the cities to which
they went was Damascus, where the new faith gained many converts.
The priests and rulers had hoped that by vigilant effort and stern
persecution the heresy might be suppressed. Now they felt that they must
carry forward in other places the decided measures taken in Jerusalem
against the new teaching.
For the special work that they desired to have done at Damascus, Saul
offered his services. "Breathing out threatenings and slaughter
against the disciples of the Lord," he "went unto the high
priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that
if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might
bring them bound unto Jerusalem." Thus "with authority and
commission from the chief priests" (Acts 26:12), Saul of Tarsus, in
the strength and vigour of manhood, and fired with mistaken zeal, set
out on that memorable journey, the strange occurrences of which were to
change the whole current of his life.
On the last day of the journey, "at midday," as the weary
travellers neared Damascus, they came within full view of broad
stretches of fertile lands, beautiful gardens, and fruitful orchards,
watered by cool streams from the surrounding mountains. After the long
journey over desolate wastes such scenes were refreshing indeed. While
Saul, with his companions, gazed with admiration on the fruitful plain
and the fair city below, "suddenly," as he afterward declared,
there shone "round about me and them which journeyed with me"
"a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun" (Acts
26:13), too glorious for mortal eyes to bear. Blinded and bewildered,
Saul fell prostrate to the ground.
While the light continued to shine round about them, Saul heard,
"a voice speaking . . . in the Hebrew tongue" (Acts 26:14),
"saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said,
Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest:
it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."
Filled with fear, and almost blinded by the intensity of the light,
the companions of Saul heard a voice, but saw no man. But Saul
understood the words that were spoken, and to him was clearly revealed
the One who spoke --even the Son of God. In the glorious Being who stood
before him he saw the Crucified One. Upon the soul of the stricken Jew
the image of the Saviour's countenance was imprinted forever. The words
spoken struck home to his heart with appalling force. Into the darkened
chambers of his mind there poured a flood of light, revealing the
ignorance and error of his former life and his present need of the
enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
Saul now saw that in persecuting the followers of Jesus he had in
reality been doing the work of Satan. He saw that his convictions of
right and of his own duty had been based largely on his implicit
confidence in the priests and rulers. He had believed them when they
told him that the story of the resurrection was an artful fabrication of
the disciples. Now that Jesus Himself stood revealed, Saul was convinced
of the truthfulness of the claims made by the disciples.
In that hour of heavenly illumination Saul's mind acted with
remarkable rapidity. The prophetic records of Holy Writ were opened to
his understanding. He saw that the rejection of Jesus by the Jews, His
crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, had been foretold by the
prophets and proved Him to be the promised Messiah. Stephen's sermon at
the time of his martyrdom was brought forcibly to Saul's mind, and he
realised that the martyr had indeed beheld "the glory of God"
when he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man
standing on the right hand of God." Acts 7:55, 56. The priests had
pronounced these words blasphemy, but Saul now knew them to be truth.
What a revelation was all this to the persecutor! Now Saul knew for a
certainty that the promised Messiah had come to this earth as Jesus of
Nazareth and that He had been rejected and crucified by those whom He
came to save. He knew also that the Saviour had risen in triumph from
the tomb and had ascended into the heavens. In that moment of divine
revelation Saul remembered with terror that Stephen, who had borne
witness of a crucified and risen Saviour, had been sacrificed by his
consent, and that later, through his instrumentality, many other worthy
followers of Jesus had met their death by cruel persecution.
The Saviour had spoken to Saul through Stephen, whose clear reasoning
could not be controverted. The learned Jew had seen the face of the
martyr reflecting the light of Christ's glory--appearing as if "it
had been the face of an angel." Acts 6:15. He had witnessed
Stephen's forbearance toward his enemies and his forgiveness of them. He
had also witnessed the fortitude and cheerful resignation of many whom
he had caused to be tormented and afflicted. He had seen some yield up
even their lives with rejoicing for the sake of their faith.
All these things had appealed loudly to Saul and at times had thrust
upon his mind an almost overwhelming conviction that Jesus was the
promised Messiah. At such times he had struggled for entire nights
against this conviction, and always he had ended the matter by avowing
his belief that Jesus was not the Messiah and that His followers were
Now Christ had spoken to Saul with His own voice, saying, "Saul,
Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" And the question, "Who art
Thou, Lord?" was answered by the same voice, "I am Jesus whom
thou persecutest." Christ here identifies Himself with His people.
In persecuting the followers of Jesus, Saul had struck directly against
the Lord of heaven. In falsely accusing and testifying against them, he
had falsely accused and testified against the Saviour of the world.
No doubt entered the mind of Saul that the One who spoke to him was
Jesus of Nazareth, the long-looked-for Messiah, the Consolation and
Redeemer of Israel. "Trembling and astonished," he inquired,
"Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him,
Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must
When the glory was withdrawn, and Saul arose from the ground, he
found himself totally deprived of sight. The brightness of Christ's
glory had been too intense for his mortal eyes; and when it was removed,
the blackness of night settled upon his vision. He believed that this
blindness was a punishment from God for his cruel persecution of the
followers of Jesus. In terrible darkness he groped about, and his
companions, in fear and amazement, "led him by the hand, and
brought him into Damascus."
On the morning of that eventful day, Saul had neared Damascus with
feelings of self-satisfaction because of the confidence that had been
placed in him by the chief priest. To him had been entrusted grave
responsibilities. He was commissioned to further the interests of the
Jewish religion by checking, if possible, the spread of the new faith in
Damascus. He had determined that his mission should be crowned with
success and had looked forward with eager anticipation to the
experiences that he expected were before him.
But how unlike his anticipations was his entrance into the city?
Stricken with blindness, helpless, tortured by remorse, knowing not what
further judgement might be in store for him, he sought out the home of
the disciple Judas, where, in solitude, he had ample opportunity for
reflection and prayer.
For three days Saul was "without sight, and neither did eat nor
drink." These days of soul agony were to him as years. Again and
again he recalled, with anguish of spirit, the part he had taken in the
martyrdom of Stephen. With horror he thought of his guilt in allowing
himself to be controlled by the malice and prejudice of the priests and
rulers, even when the face of Stephen had been lighted up with the
radiance of heaven. In sadness and brokenness of spirit he recounted the
many times he had closed his eyes and ears against the most striking
evidences and had relentlessly urged on the persecution of the believers
in Jesus of Nazareth.
These days of close self-examination and of heart humiliation were
spent in lonely seclusion. The believers, having been given warning of
the purpose of Saul in coming to Damascus, feared that he might be
acting a part, in order the more readily to deceive them; and they held
themselves aloof, refusing him their sympathy. He had no desire to
appeal to the unconverted Jews, with whom he had planned to unite in
persecuting the believers; for he knew that they would not even listen
to his story. Thus he seemed to be shut away from all human sympathy.
His only hope of help was in a merciful God, and to Him he appealed in
brokenness of heart.
During the long hours when Saul was shut in with God alone, he
recalled many of the passages of Scripture referring to the first advent
of Christ. Carefully he traced down the prophecies, with a memory
sharpened by the conviction that had taken possession of his mind. As he
reflected on the meaning of these prophecies he was astonished at his
former blindness of understanding and at the blindness of the Jews in
general, which had led to the rejection of Jesus as the promised
Messiah. To his enlightened vision all now seemed plain. He knew that
his former prejudice and unbelief had clouded his spiritual perception
and had prevented him from discerning in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah
As Saul yielded himself fully to the convicting power of the Holy
Spirit, he saw the mistakes of his life and recognised the far-reaching
claims of the law of God. He who had been a proud Pharisee, confident
that he was justified by his good works, now bowed before God with the
humility and simplicity of a little child, confessing his own
unworthiness and pleading the merits of a crucified and risen Saviour.
Saul longed to come into full harmony and communion with the Father and
the Son; and in the intensity of his desire for pardon and acceptance he
offered up fervent supplications to the throne of grace.
The prayers of the penitent Pharisee were not in vain. The inmost
thoughts and emotions of his heart were transformed by divine grave; and
his nobler faculties were brought into harmony with the eternal purposes
of God. Christ and His righteousness became to Saul more than the whole
The conversion of Saul is a striking evidence of the miraculous power
of the Holy Spirit to convict men of sin. He had verily believed that
Jesus of Nazareth had disregarded the law of God and had taught His
disciples that it was of no effect. But after his conversion, Saul
recognised Jesus as the one who had come into the world for the express
purpose of vindicating His Father's law. He was convinced that Jesus was
the originator of the entire Jewish system of sacrifices. He saw that at
the crucifixion type had met antitype, that Jesus had fulfilled the Old
Testament prophecies concerning the Redeemer of Israel.
In the record of the conversion of Saul important principles are
given us, which we should ever bear in mind. Saul was brought directly
into the presence of Christ. He was one whom Christ intended for a most
important work, one who was to be a "chosen vessel" unto Him;
yet the Lord did not at once tell him of the work that had been assigned
him. He arrested him in his course and convicted him of sin; but when
Saul asked, "What wilt Thou have me to do?" the Saviour placed
the inquiring Jew in connection with His church, there to obtain a
knowledge of God's will concerning him.
The marvellous light that illumined the darkness of Saul was the work
of the Lord; but there was also a work that was to be done for him by
the disciples. Christ had performed the work of revelation and
conviction; and now the penitent was in a condition to learn from those
whom God had ordained to teach His truth.
While Saul in solitude at the house of Judas continued in prayer and
supplication, the Lord appeared in vision to "a certain disciple at
Damascus, named Ananias," telling him that Saul of Tarsus was
praying and in need of help. "Arise, and go into the street which
is called Straight," the heavenly messenger said, "and inquire
in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he
prayeth, and hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and
putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight."
Ananias could scarcely credit the words of the angel; for the reports
of Saul's bitter persecution of the saints at Jerusalem had spread far
and wide. He presumed to expostulate: "Lord, I have heard by many
of this man, how much evil he hath done to Thy saints at Jerusalem: and
here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on
Thy name." But the command was imperative: "Go thy way: for he
is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and
kings, and the children of Israel."
Obedient to the direction of the angel, Ananias sought out the man
who had but recently breathed out threatenings against all who believed
on the name of Jesus; and putting his hands on the head of the penitent
sufferer, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that
appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou
mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
"And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales:
and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptised."
Thus Jesus gave sanction to the authority of His organised church and
placed Saul in connection with His appointed agencies on earth. Christ
had now a church as His representative on earth, and to it belonged the
work of directing the repentant sinner in the way of life.
Many have an idea that they are responsible to Christ alone for their
light and experience, independent of His recognised followers on earth.
Jesus is the friend of sinners, and His heart is touched with their woe.
He has all power, both in heaven and on earth; but He respects the means
that He has ordained for the enlightenment and salvation of men; He
directs sinners to the church, which He has made a channel of light to
When, in the midst of his blind error and prejudice, Saul was given a
revelation of the Christ whom he was persecuting, he was placed in
direct communication with the church, which is the light of the world.
In this case Ananias represents Christ, and also represents Christ's
ministers upon the earth, who are appointed to act in His stead. In
Christ's stead Ananias touches the eyes of Saul, that they may receive
sight. In Christ's stead he places his hands upon him, and, as he prays
in Christ's name, Saul receives the Holy Ghost. All is done in the name
and by the authority of Christ. Christ is the fountain; the church is
the channel of communication.