A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 9:1-2. Saul himself: his pre-conversion state in Jerusalem.
If we ask what caused Saul’s conversion, only one answer is possible. What stands out from the narrative is the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ. Saul did not ‘decide for Christ’, as we might say. On the contrary, he was persecuting Christ. It was rather Christ who decided for him and intervened in his life. The evidence for this is indisputable.
Consider first Saul’s state of mind at the time. Luke has already mentioned him three times, and each time as a bitter opponent of Christ and his church. He tells us that at Stephen’s martyrdom ‘the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’ (7:58), that ‘Saul was there, giving approval to his death’ (8:1), and that then ‘Saul began to destroy the church’ (8:3), making a house-to-house search for Christians, dragging men and women off to prison. Now Luke resumes Saul’s story by saying that he *was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples* (9:1). He had not changed since Stephen’s death; he was *still* in the same mental condition of hatred and hostility.
Worse than that. Saul had evidently hoped to contain the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, in order to destroy them there (8:3). But some had escaped his net and fled to Damascus, where several synagogues served a large Jewish colony. Determined to pursue these fugitive disciples to foreign cities, Saul hatched a plot for their liquidation and persuaded the high priest to sanction it (9:1b-2). This self appointed inquisitor then left Jerusalem, armed with written authority to the Damascus synagogues that, *if he found any there who belonged to the Way* (a very interesting early description of Jesus’ followers, which we will consider later), *whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem* (2). In modern idiom, the high priest issued him with an extradition order.
Some of the language Luke uses to describe Saul in his pre-conversion state seems deliberately to portray him as ‘a wild and ferocious beast’. The verb *lymainomai*, whose only New Testament occurrence is in 8:3 of Saul’s ‘destroying’ the church, is used in Psalm 80:13 (LXX) of wild boars devastating a vineyard; and it especially refers to ‘the ravaging of a body by a wild beast’. A little later the Damascus Christians depicted him as having ‘caused havoc in Jerusalem’ (21), where the verb *portheo* (as in Gal. 1:13, 23), which C.S.C. Williams translates ‘mauled’. Continuing the same picture, J.A.Alexander suggested that Saul’s ‘breathing out murderous threats’ (1) was ‘an allusion to the panting or snorting of wild beasts’, while later God’s grace is seen, according to Calvin, ‘not only in such a cruel wolf being turned into a sheep, but also in his assuming the character of a shepherd’.
This then, was the man (more wild animal than human being) who in a few days’ time would be a converted and baptized Christian. But he was in no mood to consider the claims of Christ. His heart was filled with hatred and his mind was poisoned by prejudice. In his own language later, a ‘raging fury’ obsessed him (26:11, RSV). If we had met him as he left Jerusalem and (with the benefit of hindsight) had told him that before he reached Damascus he would have become a believer, he would have ridiculed the idea. Yet this was the case. He had left out of his calculations the sovereign grace of God.
Tomorrow: 2). Saul and Jesus: his conversion on the Damascus Road.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.