At the beginning of Acts 8 we read how Saul began to persecute the church. And, as a result, all except the apostles were scattered through Judea and Samaria. And wherever they went, they preached the word of God.
And so Luke tells us of what happened when Philip the Evangelist went to a city of Samaria. He proclaimed the Christ to the people in the city. And he was also enabled to perform miraculous signs. And the people paid attention to his message and many believed and were baptised.
Well, when the apostles heard that the Samaritans were accepting the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them to see what was happening. And when Peter and John arrived, they prayed for the Samaritans that they might be filled with the Holy Spirit. And they placed their hands on the believers. And they received the Holy Spirit. And by the coming of the Spirit, God was demonstrating to the Apostles that they should accept into the church Samaritan believers as well as Jewish believers.
But then Luke also tells us about Simon who made a profession of faith and was baptised like the others. However, after he tried to buy the authority to send the Holy Spirit on whomever he wanted, Peter pronounced a curse on him. And though Simon had made a profession of faith, nevertheless it became clear to the apostles that this man did not have a true, saving faith in the Lord Jesus.
However, we also had the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who had was coming back from Jerusalem where he had been worshipping God. And on his way home he was reading from the prophet Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. And God sent Philip to him. And, beginning with that very passage of Scripture, Philip explained the good news of Jesus Christ to him. And the eunuch believed and was baptised.
One man, Simon, was gripped by the idea of controlling the Holy Spirit. The other man, the eunuch, was gripped by the message of a Suffering Servant who died to pay for our sins. One made a profession which proved to be false, whereas the other went on his way, rejoicing, because of what he had heard and believed.
Verses 1 to 6
Chapter 8 began by telling us about Saul who had begun to destroy the church. Chapter 9 begins by telling us how he was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. Well, we can imagine him, can’t we? Fuming with rage against the church. Or panting and snorting like a wild beast, as one commentator puts it. He hated the name of Jesus Christ so much that he wanted to destroy Christ’s church completely. And so, he asked for letters from the High Priest to take to the synagogues in Damascus. Presumably these were letters asking the leaders of the local synagogues to give their full support to Saul and to help him to identify and to round up the Christians. And in verse 2 we see that he’s going after men and women. And we also learn that his plan was to take them as prisoners back to Jerusalem, presumably to stand trial before the Sanhedrin.
In verse 3 we read that as Saul came near to Damascus, a bright light flashed around him. Later, in chapter 26, Paul describes this as ‘a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions.’ And when this light flashed around him, he fell to the ground and heard a voice. And as we’ll see, it was the voice of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus. This reminds us of the Lord’s transfiguration, when his clothes became radiant and intensely white and his face shone like the sun. And it reminds us of John’s vision of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus in Revelation 1. John tells us how the Lord’s eyes burned like fire and his face shone like the sun shining in full strength. And John, when he saw the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, fell down as though dead. And so, Saul too sees a bright, flashing, radiant light which signifies the presence of the Lord Jesus. And he fell to the ground just as John did.
And what did the Lord Jesus say to him? He said:
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
Now, Saul was persecuting the church but the Lord complains that he’s persecuting me — the Lord Jesus. We can learn two things here. First of all, this speaks to us of the unity that exists between Christ and his people. We believe that we’re united to Christ through faith. He’s the head and we’re the body. And we’re so closely united to him that he regards an attack on the church as an attack on him. But then, secondly, we learn that the Lord is not unaware of what is happening to his church on earth. My sister moved over to the States recently. And though she keeps in touch with us, there’s plenty that goes on in our lives that she can’t possible know because she’s so far away. But though the Lord is so far away in heaven, though he is exalted on high, he’s not so far above us that he’s cut off from us. He’s not so far away that he’s in the dark about what is happening on the earth. No, he knows what is happening to his people. He sees it all. And he cares about what is happening to the church on earth.
Saul’s question in verse 5 shows us that he doesn’t know who is speaking to him. So the Lord says to him:
I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Imagine that! Paul presumably thought that Jesus was a blasphemer who had died and was buried. He presumably thought that the Apostles were either deceived or deceivers. They were either deceived — because they mistakenly believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Or else they were deceivers — trying to get others to believe a lie. In any case, Paul did not believe in Jesus. Until now, that is — because Jesus was alive and was speaking to him from heaven.
And the Lord Jesus commanded Saul to get up off the ground where he had fallen and to go into the city of Damascus and wait for further instructions.
Verses 7 to 16
In verses 7 and 8 we’re told that afterwards, Saul couldn’t see anything. And so his companions took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. For three days he was blind. And he spent his time in prayer and fasting.
Meanwhile, God called Ananias in a vision. Ananias, we read in verse 10 was a disciple. We’d love to know how he became a believer. We’d love to know who told him the good news. We’d love to know how many other believers there were in the city of Damascus. But Luke doesn’t tell us. He simply introduces Ananias as a disciple. And the Lord instructed him to go to a certain house and ask for Saul. And Ananias is told that when he arrives, Saul will be waiting for him.
We learn from verse 13 that Ananias has already heard about Saul. His reputation has gone before him. And Ananias knows precisely what Saul used to be like. ‘Lord’, he says in verse 13, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he’s done to your holy people in Jerusalem.’ And he goes on:
he has come here … to arrest all who call on your name.
Here we have two ways of referring to believers. They’re known as the Lord’s holy people. And they’re known as those who call on the name of the Lord. Both of those ways of describing believers are worth noting.
First of all, we’re holy. Now, this doesn’t mean we’re all perfect and good and upright and sinless. We know we’re not perfect and we know that we sin against God everyday. And everyday we must confess that we’re not perfect — we’re sinners. Nevertheless, we’re still described in the Bible as God’s holy people. And we’re described as God’s holy people for two reasons. We’re holy because through faith, we’re justified. And that means God now regards us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ which is regarded as ours. So, when God looks at us, he regards us as having done everything right. In other words, he regards us as holy because of holiness of the Lord Jesus. And we’re holy because God has filled us with his Holy Spirit who is working in our lives to renew us in his image, making us more and more willing and able to keep his commandments. In other words, the Spirit is at work in us in order to make us holy.
So, Christians are God’s holy people. God regards us as perfectly holy because Christ’s perfect righteousness is regarded as ours. And we’re becoming holy because of the Holy Spirit.
But Christians are also described as ‘those who call on the name of the Lord.’ And we call on the name of the Lord because there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. And so we call on Jesus Christ the Great Redeemer to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of everlasting life.
Back to verses 13 and 14. Ananias protests: Saul wants to destroy the church. But, in verse 15, the Lord re-assures him. He explains that he has chosen Saul to proclaim the Lord’s name to the Gentiles and to their kings and to the people of Israel. And sure enough, we read in the remainder of Acts how Paul, when he arrived at a city, typically went to the synagogue to preach the gospel to the Jews. And after he had preached to the Jews, he would then preach to the Gentiles in the same city. And, we also see him preaching to the Roman governors and to King Agrippa and finally travelling to Rome and to the Roman Emperor. The Lord explains to Ananias that he has chosen Saul to preach to all of these people.
The Lord Jesus refers to Saul as ‘his chosen instrument’ which reminds us that the Lord chooses preachers and uses them to make the gospel known. He doesn’t write the good news in the sky for us to see; nor does he plant the gospel message in our hearts — though he could do both of these things. No, his method is always to send a preacher to make the good news known. He did it with the Ethiopian eunuch: The eunuch had the Bible in his hands, but he needed a preacher to explain it to him. In the next chapter he does it with Cornelius: God sent him Peter to explain the gospel message about Jesus Christ. And he’s going to do it again and again with Saul — sending him to preach to others. ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’, writes Paul in Romans 10. And in the next verse, Paul asks: How can they call unless they believe? And how can they believe unless they hear? And how can they hear unless someone preaches? And how can they preach unless they’re sent? And so God, who wants to save sinners, sends us preachers. They’re God’s chosen instruments, the tool he uses to make the good news known. That was God’s method in the days of the Apostles. And it’s still his method today.
But then we have verse 16: God’s chosen instrument will have to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. Saul, the great persecutor of the church will himself be persecuted. You see, not everyone who hears will believe. Many will not believe. And many will hate the name of the Lord Jesus. And they’ll hate us for preaching about the Lord Jesus. And that, of course, reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised when we find evangelism to be hard work. We shouldn’t be surprised when we find that the response to the gospel is small. Though we have come to believe that it is the best news possible, there are many who will hate the message and will refuse to accept it.
Verses 17 to 19a
In verse 17 we read that Ananias does what he’s told to do. He goes to the house. And he places his hands on Saul. And look — since God has accepted Saul, then Ananias is prepared to accept him too and he calls him ‘brother’. And Ananias explains that the Lord Jesus has sent him in order that Saul might receive his sight again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And immediately his sight was restored. And he was baptised.
This account of Saul’s conversion and commissioning is an example to us. Now, it’s not an example of how we come to faith — and though people talk about having a Damascus Road experience, none of us has experienced what Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. None of us has seen the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus with our own eyes and none of us has heard the Lord Jesus speaking to us from heaven. So, it’s not an example of how we come to faith. But it’s an example to us of the Lord’s grace and mercy. You see, years later Saul, now known as Paul, wrote to Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And, he went on to add, I am one of the worst. One of the worst sinners. And he was, wasn’t he? — the way he persecuted the Lord’s people and tried to destroy the church. And yet, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And if he’s able to save the very worst kind, like Saul, then he’s able to save anyone who turns from their sins in repentance and turns with faith to the Saviour.